By Frank Seravalli, Philadelphia Daily News
BOSTON — When the Philadelphia Flyers’ 18 non-Olympians returned to the ice for practice on March 19 after an NHL-mandated 10-day break, the veterans organized a little team activity to see who fell out of shape the quickest on vacation.
They called it a battle for the “Green Jacket,” in reference to the Masters prize, since the “winner” likely spent too much time on the golf course during the break.
A decade ago, the Flyers’ least conditioned player would likely have been chosen subjectively — by a kangaroo court of vets judging simply with their eyes.
Last month, the Flyers — and team management — were able to tell which players maintained their fitness by huddling around a computer screen. The numbers spoke for themselves.
That’s because the Flyers are the only NHL team to train with data-collecting technology by Catapult Sports. During nearly every practice, Flyers players skate with a durable GPS tracking device that is roughly half the size of an iPhone sewn into a pocket on the back of their shoulder pads that remotely monitors distance, velocity, acceleration, deceleration, jumps, heart rate and recovery time, among many other things.
The heart-rate monitor, a strap that wraps around their chest, is the only piece of equipment players notice.
“I don’t think anyone in here had any issue with wearing it,” Flyers forward Jay Rosehill said. “In fact, I think everyone was pretty curious when we first started to wear it. It’s funny how the game has evolved and they’re using technology like that to track us.”
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren was not able to speak about his team’s use of the data gathered by Australia-based Catapult, citing the “legalities of our agreement.”
Eagles coach Chip Kelly started using Catapult at the University of Oregon and brought the technology with him to the Eagles. More than 250 teams in numerous professional and amateur sports leagues work with Catapult.
Numerous Flyers said this week that the technology, which can compute workload in practice, actually has fostered an interest in competition in practice. Hal Gill, who has appeared in only four games this season, will routinely ask Flyers strength and conditioning coach Ryan Podell how his numbers from practice stack up before he has even pulled his jersey off.
“I think, more than anything, this isn’t used to compare yourself to any other guy,” Rosehill said. “Once you get enough data, you can begin to track your own progress throughout the course of the season. You know whether you might need to spend more time in the gym or more time on conditioning.”
Indianapolis Colts quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck participated in a panel at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last weekend and said the use of these types of monitoring technologies has piqued their interest.
“As athletes, there’s always hesitation to wear anything that might hinder your performance,” Luck said. “We want to be as distraction-free as possible.”
Hasselbeck, Luck’s backup, said he saw Luck testing a similar device in practice last season, which immediately made him want to try.
For the Flyers, perhaps the biggest boon to using Catapult is not only fine-tuning conditioning, but possibly being able to prevent injury. About 95 percent of soft-tissue injuries — such as groin pulls, hamstring strains, and so forth — come from overuse.
With Catapult, the Flyers are able to manage workloads in practice, possibly being able to tell when a player may need a day off. Since the NHL does not allow the use of devices such as Catapult during games, all the Flyers have to go on are minutes played and overall feel.
Ray Emery’s groin injury suffered during last Thursday’s game, when he entered cold in relief of Steve Mason, was thought to be the Flyers’ first soft-tissue injury of the season.
“I think in the old days, coach probably would have kicked our ass in the first practice back after the Olympics,” Rosehill said. “Now, I think they’re smart enough to look at the data and ease us into a little bit. It’s better. Guys aren’t pulling their groins or having tight muscles and stuff.”
Catapult has really only begun to scratch the surface of player monitoring. No one has perfected a way to manage and monitor athlete hydration levels. Catapult chairman Adir Shiffman told the Philadelphia Daily News that once one of America’s four major sports leagues allows the use of Catapult during games — which he hopes happens within two years — that is when real benefits will be realized, particularly in contact sports.
Since Catapult tracks acceleration, deceleration, force, facing and changes of direction, their devices could help better predict the chances of concussion.
“That is the holy grail of predictive analytics,” Shiffman said. “We want to be able to extend players’ playing life. I don’t want to be critical of leagues, but the technology is still emerging. We’re already able to tell if players sustain big knocks or small knocks, and that’s just in practice.”
In the case of the NHL, the Department of Player Safety could also use the technology if implemented to determine whether a player was in decelerating quickly enough before a questionable hit.
Any change in rules would need to be negotiated with the NHL’s Players Association, which would likely be wary of data collection, for fear it could hurt future earnings. Plus, it would spark a debate as to who owns the data collected: players or teams?
For “old-school” hockey executives, these numbers gathered — like many of the advanced stats in the sport — don’t tell them anything they already cannot see with their eyes.
“I’m not trying to be a smart ass, but to me, most of this stuff is supported by the video that we already have,” Calgary Flames president Brian Burke said. “Brendan Shanahan can see when a player is slowing down. We did the whole heart-rate thing already. When players skate, their heart rate goes up. When players stop skating, it goes down. A player’s recovery time is important, but that’s not analytics to me. That’s medical data. No one has been able to tell me anything I can’t already see.”
Rosehill, who played for Burke in Toronto, tended to agree.
“I think everyone out there is working hard,” Rosehill said. “And if you’re not, I think the coach is smart enough to know anyway. It’s more of a tool to see if anything is out of the ordinary. I have a naturally high heart rate, it’s high even before games when playing soccer. I think it’s good to get a sense whether we need to work harder or whether we should maybe back off a little.”
For a Flyers franchise spending north of $70 million just on player salaries, implementing technology that is rumored to cost more than $100,000 per season, is a drop in the insurance bucket.
“At the end of the year, you don’t want to have any excuses,” Rosehill said. “Why not try it? It doesn’t hurt anything. They provide us with the best stuff here. There’s no excuse for us not working hard. It’s on us.”
Photo: Francois Peeters via Flickr