BoxWorks 2022: Tying data to hockey in the NHL

Box and NHL

Every ice hockey game begins with a faceoff: the moment when the ref drops the puck between the sticks of two opposing players. Sometimes, the game ends in a clear win. Others, there’s a sudden-death overtime or even a shootout. But always, a hockey game ends with a lot of data collected.

You may not think about data when you think about hockey, but Carol Dann does. She’s Vice President Information Technology at the National Hockey League (NHL), a 50-year-old organization she’s been with for nearly half its lifespan. At this year’s BoxWorks, I had the fortune of sitting down with Dann to hear what’s changed for the NHL over time, and specifically in the last few years, in terms of technology.

What does hockey have to do with data?

So about that data. It comes from various sources, including cameras in the goalie nets and high above the game, game statistics, and the feedback of both on-ice and off-ice officials. The latter track when players enter and leave a game, the exact timing of scored goals, and the game clock in general. At every arena, a staff of over 30 people gather and track all this information so it’s available to use within milliseconds on game night.

Dann says, “We collect so much data from the games, and we’re able to do phenomenal things with it, like feed it back into an iPad app so the team can quickly review the video, analyze the various stats, and get insight into which player might win the next faceoff.” Where coaches used to have to rely on gut feeling alone, now, they have hard evidence about how players will match off.

Timing is everything in hockey and technology

Although the hockey season was cut short in March of 2020, pandemic disappointment paved the way for an extended summer in which to evaluate various technology platforms and systems. “We had the opportunity to do some of the things we hadn’t been thinking about before, and also to push things further along that hadn’t been a focus originally,” says Dann, “for instance, electronic signatures and electronic document-sharing.”

The NHL had traditionally relied heavily on emailing and even faxing documents around, including critical contracts, which were hand-signed. When people were isolated and quarantined, that was no longer an efficient way to do business. Instead, Dann’s team adopted Box. The timing of the pandemic was a catalyst for the NHL in terms of accepting digital signatures and collecting contracts electronically — big steps to becoming a digital-first organization.

Dann told me, “I have to give Box a lot of credit for helping us share documents and collect signatures in ways we had not done before. It was the catalyst to realizing maybe we need to focus on those types of things even more.”

The people side

Another pandemic effort Dann is very proud of is the work she did to create a women’s employee resource group (ERG) in the NHL. As a woman in a technology leadership role in a traditionally male-dominated world, this was a project close to her heart.

The group grew over time, and Damm said, “A colleague of mine told me that the ERG was a blessing to her, because she had just started her job in January of 2020. She was still finding her ground and figuring stuff out, when we were sent home. The ERG gave her a sense of community — someone she could pick up the phone and call (or Slack) to ask for guidance.”

For Dann, thriving as a leader of any gender in the sports world is all about connection and the feeling of making a contribution.

The future of faceoffs

The NHL has a CISO and an InfoSec team that carefully vet all vendors and put them through rigorous analysis before entering into a contract or even a preliminary relationship. “As a league,” Dann says, “We’ve dedicated a lot of time and resources into things like security checks and vulnerability tests to make sure the systems we have are protected and that the information we’re holding on behalf of people is safe, and that we’re not sharing it without their permission.”

Another “silver lining” of the pandemic — if there even is such a thing — was that it gave Dann’s team the opportunity to share such best practice and change-management experiences with other leagues.

“We’re now predicting faceoffs,” says Dann, “But who knows what’s going to come next, with all the data that’s out there? We now realize we can do anything, as long as we can get the data with very little latency. The world is our oyster, And let’s face it, all that we do is to make sure the game on the ice is the best it can be.”

To watch the full interview, please visit BoxWorks 2022 for on-demand sessions here.

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