Boston was a great place to be in January 1996. The World Juniors wrapped up with Jarome Iginla leading Canada to gold, and Ray Bourque put on a memorable show at the NHL All-Star Game.
And Fox gave us the glowing puck.
I had already been in Boston for three or four days at the NHL All-Star FanFest. It wasn’t much different than any of the other All-Star FanFests we went to in the 1990s, although the passion level in Boston was off the charts. I was the editor of Canadian Sportscard Collector magazine during that time, and we always participated as an exhibitor at the NHL’s All-Star and Draft FanFest events that involved card shows.
The skills competition was fun but, 25 years later, the memories seem like snippets. The fastest skater competition was exciting, with Sergei Fedorov tying Mike Gartner’s record. A few minutes later, Gartner set a new record that stood for 20 years until Dylan Larkin broke it in 2016.
Mark Messier, not exactly a fan favourite in Boston when the Bruins played the Rangers but an absolute fan favourite at an All-Star Game, was lights out in the shooting accuracy competition hitting four targets in four shots. He edged out the hometown favourite, Ray Bourque, who won the accuracy shooting contest at the All-Star Game seven times in his career.
Bourque Scores Winner
All-Star Games are forgettable unless someone does something epic. Bourque did exactly that. He scored the winning goal with less than a minute left to play to give the Eastern Conference a 6-5 win and send the Fleet Center crowd into a frenzy.
Bourque was named the game’s MVP after an unusual voting process. Dominik Hasek was actually voted the MVP, but the voting took place before the winning goal was scored. Hasek insisted that Bourque, in his 17th season and playing in front of his home crowd in Boston, should be the MVP.
Other memories from the game were how absolutely dominant with the puck Mario Lemieux was. He only had two assists on the night, but seeing how he toyed with the top defenders in the Western Conference made everyone realize his incredible talent level. As an Ottawa area native and a Senators fan, I was also excited to see rookie Daniel Alfredsson play in his first of what would be many All-Star Games. He went on to win the Calder Trophy that year.
From the countless All-Star Games I have watched and from the dozen or so games I have been to, this was clearly the best game and one of the best events.
But we don’t remember it for that. We remember it for a gimmicky glowing puck streaking across our analog, low-def TV screens.
The Glowing Puck
I watched most of the game in the Pinnacle Brands, Inc. suite. They produced Score and Pinnacle hockey cards, along with a few other brands like Select, Zenith and Certified. I wrote a lot of the card backs for them back then. A few months later, I was hired as their hockey brand manager and relocated to the brand-new but excited hockey market of Dallas.
The memory I will keep forever was that most of the people in the suite, including all of the Dallas natives, turned their backs to the game and were fascinated by the Fox glowing puck.
Pinnacle CEO Jerry Meyer, an energetic corporate Texan and a guy I absolutely loved to work for, stood there with his wife, Sue-Sue, watching the glowing puck streak across the screen. They chatted with me and asked me a lot of questions about hockey. I rolled with it, just assuming that it was exciting for them to talk hockey with a real Canadian. I should have worn denim from head to toe and told them we ate seal meat from the concession stands at games in Canada. I saved those antics for the staff when I actually started to work in Dallas.
What we were all staring at was the debut of the FoxTrax. I went to the presser held that weekend to talk about FoxTrax. The explanation they gave was simple. They wanted to attract new hockey fans and grow their audience. The thinking was that the puck was too hard to follow, and the glowing streak would enable new fans to hockey a better chance to follow the play.
The pucks used were developed by Etak. It was a digital mapping company that was a pioneer in the GPS market. Etak was purchased by News Corp., which was owned by Fox co-founder Rupert Murdoch. The Australian-born media mogul was shown the idea a year before the All-Star Game took place. Murdoch liked it and green-lighted it.
Etak took regulation NHL hockey pucks, sliced them in half, and put infrared transmitters, a circuit board and a battery in the puck. The halves of the puck were then put back together using epoxy glue.
The project manager for the development of the FoxTrax puck and system was Rick Cavallaro, who spoke at the press conference. Years later, Cavallaro wrote a first hand account of the puck and its development for Engineering and Technology History Wiki (ethw.org), called ‘First-Hand: Recollections of the development of the FoxTrax hockey puck tracking system’.
“I was lead engineer probably simply by virtue of the fact that I was with Etak/News Corp,” wrote Cavallaro in the ethw.org article. “The others were contracting for us. Instrumenting the camera became one of my subprojects, and instrumenting the puck became my other primary subproject.”
Cavallaro and his team worked relentlessly and around the clock, experimenting with different technologies and testing prototypes.
Will the FoxTrax Puck be Ready?
“We were two weeks away from the All-Star Game, still wondering if we could finish building a system to put on the ice,” wrote Cavallaro. “So we drafted another guy from Etak, a guy by the name of Terry O’Brien who did a lot of our mechanical work at Etak. Terry had also done the layout on the circuit board that goes into the puck. He had designed the battery can and a few of the components in the puck. So we drafted him, and designated him our puck expert to go and meet with the guys at the NHL. We had done everything we could to make sure that the puck was survivable — that it wasn’t going to break apart, and that it had exactly the same weight and rebound properties that an official NHL puck has. We had removed a lot of rubber from the puck to accommodate the electronics. And then we filled that back up with electronics and a compound that we developed that was basically a flexible epoxy mixed with some filler material to get the right rebound and weight.”
The technology created a blue tail that would trail the puck, making it look like a comet on the screen. If the puck’s speed reached 70 mph, the tail became red. The batteries in the pucks had a limited lifetime of about 18 minutes of usage. About 50 pucks were created for each game.
The glowing puck lasted until the end of the 1997-98 Stanley Cup Final. ABC obtained the NHL’s broadcasting rights for the United States in the summer of 1998, and the FoxTrax puck era had come to an end.
Fox kept the FoxTrax branding alive and transitioned it to other sports. They have used it NASCAR broadcasts, and also for the electronic strike zone display for baseball games.
Cavallaro went on to be the chief scientist for SportVision, a company that revolutionized sports television graphics. Among their innovations is the yellow first down line that viewers see when watching a game.
“The All-Star Game proved to be a success,” Cavallaro said in his ethw.org article. “Even so, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine going forward. We continued to face new problems at many of the early games. Looking back, I’m proud of what we accomplished, but there were still plenty of tense times ahead at that point. At that time broadcasters weren’t really exposed to systems in an R&D phase.”
When the game and the NHL FanFest ended, we loaded up the SUV and got ready for the trip home. Our office was in St. Catharines, ON, in the Niagara area. My co-worker drove and I rode shotgun as we rode along I-90 from Boston to Buffalo. Our boss forgot to tell us before letting us use his SUV for the trip that the driver’s side electronic window was malfunctioning.
We hit our first toll booth early into the trip. My friend and co-worker, Rob, put down the window. It would come back up. We tried everything and could not get the window to roll up. Unfortunately, this was a few years before we all had cell phones.
It was cold that weekend. The temperature was below zero Fahrenheit, and about minus-20 Celsius. We drove the entire way from Boston to Buffalo at 70 mph with the window open and the heat cranked up.
The only thing colder than we were that weekend was the reception that hockey purists gave the FoxTrax puck.
But looking back, the FoxTrax puck was probably an idea that the broadcasting technology of the time was not ready for. And as much as it made the serious hockey fans cringe, it introduced a lot of American viewers to hockey for the first time.