If someone looks closely at the team benches in this year’s National Hockey League Stanley Cup Playoffs, they’ll see something that wasn’t there during the regular season. Tucked away alongside the coaches and players is a 12.9-inch Apple iPad Pro, ready to be used as another analytical tool in their arsenal.
The addition of the iPad Pro is part of a new multi-year deal between Apple and the NHL to bring the devices to teams so they can watch video clips and replays on the fly instead of having to wait until they are back in the locker room in between periods.
The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but after the testing phase with the 16 teams in this year’s playoffs the devices will roll out to all teams in the league for the start of the 2017-2018 season. The idea is to help coaches and players make quick adjustments to their plays, which should also make the game more exciting for fans to watch as the battle becomes increasingly strategic.
“This is a game of inches now,” said Claude Julien, head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, in an interview. The Canadiens were one of the teams to use the new technology in this year’s postseason.
“Even if it is used just once in a specific game of a playoffs series, who knows, it could allow you to make that difference.”
The move by the NHL to incorporate new technology into the game follow similar deals in other professional sports. In 2014, the National Football League struck a deal with Microsoft to use Surface tablets on the sidelines during games. In 2016, Major League Baseball and Apple signed a deal to put iPads in dugouts.
“There are certainly tablet solutions (in other sports), but they are not providing access to real-time video or stats,” said David Lehanski, the NHL’s senior vice president of business development and global partnerships, in an interview. “The premise for the solution was and is to provide all of the coaches and players on the benches with immediate access to those real-time video highlights from the game they are playing.”
The way it works is each team has a video coach with access to live footage and who edits clips as the game is being played. Keywords can then be added to each clip — such as player names, specific plays or types of goals — so others on the team can quickly search for the appropriate video on their device.
“The assistant coaches are probably the ones who are going to use it more because the head coach is the guy that is making the line changes, having to look at the game or talk to the referees, so the only time I really looked at it was during the TV timeouts,” Julien said.
“But there are times where you might ask the assistant coach to look at something specific and then he can even look at it while the play is going on and get back to you.”
The tablets themselves are locked down to a specific team with no administrative access, meaning they are unable to install new apps, go on social media or use it for any purpose other than hockey. All the data is encrypted, both on the devices and during transmission through WiFi.
“Footage by the video coach for the home team will only be seen by the iPads that are addressed accordingly for the home bench and then the same thing for the away team,” said Peter DelGiacco, the NHL’s chief technology officer, in an interview.
As part of the partnership with Apple, referees also have access to an iPad Pro now during video reviews. When the officials make the call to Toronto for a review, they can now simultaneously watch video controlled by the league with them on the tablet as everyone works together to get the right answer.
“The guys in Toronto are not at the game, but they might have different views. So they’ll expose those views and service the video up for the officials and ask, ‘Did you see this?’,” DelGiacco said. “At the same time, the referees on the ice…will have other insights.”
Once the postseason wraps up, DelGiacco said the league will critique how everything went and eventually look at adding more technology into the mix such as Apple Watches or Mac computers.
“This is just the beginning. We are going to look to provide teams with tools so they can do whatever it is they want to do. We don’t want to put restrictions on them,” he said.
As more teams use the technology next year and learn what it’s capable of adding to the game, Julien said it’ll only make the sport better.
“When we look at all games and all sports, everything is evolving,” he said. “I don’t think these are the kind of tools that will hurt our game but, if anything, they are going to help.”