An incredible 20 years ago, a now little known technological invention took the hockey world by storm, for reasons both good and bad.
After securing the rights to broadcast NHL games in the United States, a man named David Hill, who at the time was the head of Fox Sports, envisioned a way in which to attract greater attention to the game, as well as make it easier to understand, especially to those foreign to the sport.
As a result, Hill conceptualized an idea which would allow viewers to more easily track the puck on the ice. He approached Stan Honey, the Executive VP of Technology for New Corporation, which owned Fox and Fox Sports if it would be possible to design a puck which could be tracked on screen through the use of computer graphics.
It could be done. The cost to design the puck? $2 Million.
Further, it would be designed in time for the 1996 NHL All-Star game, which was quickly approaching and provided designers little room for error.
How Did it Work?
The FOXTRAX puck was created by first taking an ordinary NHL puck and simply cutting it in half. Then, a small circuit board, which contained infrared emitters and a shock sensor, as well as a battery had to fitted inside the existing puck. The battery itself had a limited life, and was only designed to survive for 30 minutes. As such, numerous pucks had to be provided for each game, which were activated when dropped by a referee or hit by a hockey stick.
Once active, the puck would emit infrared pulses, which in turn were detected by an incredible 20 detectors and 10 modified cameras which had to be placed in the rafters of the arena in which the game was being held in order to receive the pulses.
Then, the pulses and their information had to be transmitted to a production trailer located at the event, where computer graphics were imposed which would be seen by viewers.
The one major difficulty faced when designing the puck was to ensure that when used in live action, the puck adequately resembled that of a normal puck, in that it was of identical or similar size, weight, balance and rebound.
— NHL VAVEL (@NHL_VAVEL) January 25, 2016
What Did the Puck Look Like?
When the information received from the puck was transmitted and superimposed upon the puck, the viewers were treated to a display of color on the puck.
While in use, the puck carried a light blue tint, which was difficult to see on the white ice surface. When passed, the puck grew a tail, which indicated the direction in which the puck was moving. Further, when the puck was shot, if the disk travelled greater than 70 Miles per Hour, the tail would turn red to dramatize the speed of the puck.
What did it look like in action?
Fox took it a step further in its attempt to emphasize the importance of its newest creation, calling the invention, and I quote:
“The greatest technological breakthrough in the history of sports.”
While some lauded the creation for its ability to draw new viewers to the sport, ultimately helping to further grow the game, those who had long appreciated and loved the sport thought otherwise.
The general feeling among true hockey fans was that, in the effort to grow the game in the United States, Fox was striping the sport of its authenticity, as those who had long watched the game prior to FOXTRAX had no issue understanding the position and movement of the puck.
However, due to its highly controversial nature, the implementation of the FOXTRAX puck, despite its obvious contention, actually aided Fox, whose ratings rose considerably for reasons both good and bad. In fact, a Fox Sports survey found that 7 of 10 respondents approved of the new puck. As a result, the use of the puck and the response it generated quickly over-shadowed the original cost of designing the puck.
Despite its success, ratings for the NHL on Fox eventually began to dip, as the invention of the “Glow Puck” was not enough to draw sustainable interest from American viewers.
It was last used in the first game of the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, as Fox wound up losing the NHL broadcast rights to ABC prior to the 1999-00 season.
Could the FOXTRAX puck make a comeback?
Likely not, however, the basis of the technology originally used could spur further technological modifications to the puck used today. In particular, a microchip or similar technology could be fitted inside the puck in order to record the speed of the puck, as well as its specific location when it enters the net, something advanced stats aficionados would love.
Or, perhaps, technology could be used alongside detectors located in the ice to determine whether a puck truly crossed the goal-line. Sure, this would further rid the game of the human element, but it would allow for accurate in-game results and rid the NHL of lengthy call to the video review room.
Of course, I’m not saying that these ideas should be implemented, only that the FOXTRAX puck and the technological steps it took in the hockey world could once again bring benefit, to an extent, to the NHL game.