Journey to cutting-edge sports analytics: From collaboration to a hockey-changing idea

 

Best ideas come from unexpected places at unexpected times. The idea for a “smart puck” emerged from the combination of an unfinished project and the need for digitalization.

Tappara, a top-tier Finnish ice hockey team, contacted Bitwise (Wisehockey’s parent company) about their idea for a mobile application. This started conversations about the digitalization of ice hockey.

The topic quickly changed into an idea for a smart puck that could produce real-time data. The idea came from abandoned Quuppa positioning locators in the ceiling of Tappara’s home rink. Bitwise CEO Tomi Mikkonen decided to take on the challenge. Could this idea be the next step for Finnish ice hockey, and maybe sports internationally?

The idea was simple: all the players and the puck would be fitted with chips that “communicate” with the locators above the ice providing the location of every player and the puck. This enables calculating different elements of the game: top speeds of both the player and the puck, which was previously only done with a radar, and much more.

Perfecting the smart puck

The concept of sports analytics wasn’t a new thing. Leagues and teams worldwide have been collecting data about their performance for years and years, and some companies were already doing that on a big scale. What was different about Wisehockey?

Until this point, the majority of data gathering was done manually by people watching the games. You can imagine the amount of work and people needed. Wisehockey could make this process fully automatic, bringing new statistics to the game (e.g. top speeds) at the same time. Human error in the process was minimized.

“The great part of these statistics is that all the statistics are calculated in the same way, in real time. When a person is doing the statistics and mapping them manually or semi-manually, it is always related to that person’s opinion. With Wisehockey, all statistics are comparable since they are all calculated using the same process,” says Wisehockey’s Head of Sales Miska Kuusisto.

One of the biggest challenges was crafting the smart puck. A hockey puck has to endure tremendous forces; the hardest shot in NHL history was 108.8 mp/h (175.1 km/h), and it was shot by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. It was important that the puck keeps its characteristics even with a tracking chip inside.

The puck can reach the speeds of 150 and 160 km/h multiple times in a game. For example, when the puck hits a post, at that moment it faces 200-300 G’s. At the same time, the system must receive the signal from the puck,” Kuusisto explains.

Wisehockey’s Head of Product Management Mika Hulkki tried multiple different applications and spent countless hours perfecting the design. Finally, a suitable mixture was found, and the smart puck was quickly patented.

…and that was just the beginning

“For me this has been one of the most interesting projects that I’ve been working on. Hockey brings so many people together and, in this project, we really get the chance to get close to the end user. Another interesting fact is that this has been a technical challenge because there are so many interfaces that we must integrate with,” Hulkki says.

After the setup of the puck and locators was ready, it was time to test the system. What could be a better place to do this than Hakametsä, the first and oldest ice hockey arena in Finland, located in Tampere? The city of Tampere has strongly influenced Finnish ice hockey culture: the first outdoor rink and ice hockey arena are both in Tampere, so it was only fitting that the Wisehockey platform was tested there.

Is Hulkki content with creating the first fully automated real-time hockey analytics platform in the world? “This was just the first step for Wisehockey. We have plenty of ideas and implementations on the way, so you will be hearing from Wisehockey even more in the future.”

 

This is the first part of a series of blog posts. Join us on the journey through the history of fully automated real-time sports analytics!