NHL’s digital head on how the league is using the cloud to deliver ‘enhanced stats’ and a better fan experience

Hardcore and casual fans alike know the National Hockey League’s (NHL) 2016 Stanley Cup playoff final kicks off on Monday with the Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins against the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks squaring off for hockey supremacy. But as excited as someone like Chris Foster is for the NHL finals, he’s already thinking about next season.

Foster is the NHL’s digital business development director and is responsible for boosting fan engagement on digital channels including mobile apps and social media.

Chris Foster, digital business development director for the NHL
Chris Foster, digital business development director for the NHL

“For me, playoffs planning ends in February,” Foster told IT World Canada. “What I’m focused on now is our Centennial that’s coming up.”

Indeed, the coming 2016-2017 season officially represents NHL’s Centennial Celebration and Foster is currently heading up a project to capture the entire official statistical history of the professional league — including every box score dating back to the NHL’s inaugural 1917-18 season.

When the NHL last year announced a multi-year North American partnership with enterprise application vendor SAP SE, it was with an eye on improving its cloud capabilities and also how it approached hockey statistics, said Foster. With more than a century of stats, the league required an enterprise relational database that was fast and able to conduct performance analysis in real-time to help better target its digital strategy initiatives.

Specifically, the NHL is using the SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud service to enhance its hockey analytics site NHL.com/Stats, which has gone through several iterations to capture data points on a granular level. This includes using the open platform-as-a-service to provide a “personalized and interactive experience for fans” with real-time analytics around active player comparison tools, player performance prediction tools, team power indexes and “enhanced stats” around shot attempts (SAT), unblocked shot attempts (USAT), shooting plus save percentage (SPSV%) and more.

Foster was at SAP’s 2016 Sapphire conference in mid-May to learn more about the SAP HANA cloud solution enhancements, including extensions for SAP S/4 HANA and also the SAP Digital Boardroom product that claims to deliver visual answers and analytics in real time.

“As advanced as the HANA system is, there are some unique challenges when it comes to setup and integration,” he said, adding that overall he’s been happy with the platform and how it fits into the organization’s future plans. The SAP platform provides the back end technology that allows the NHL to focus on improving user engagement and the stats experience: “We couldn’t do that before.”

Foster is as passionate about the game as he is about his job; he notes that this current project around the historical digitization of game sheets and back filling stats is something that all fans of the game will be interested in, including himself.

He excitedly pulled up a digitized game sheet of a 1926 game between the New York Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks on his laptop during the interview.

The technology enables the NHL to create a box score for every game ever played; by capturing every power play goal and winning play —the platform will be able to backfill career records of every player who has ever donned skates in an NHL rink, he said.

Enhanced hockey statistics are serious business for aficionados; Foster notes the evolving site is designed to grow its user base. Keeping hockey fans engaged on digital platforms represents unique challenges, Foster said. It’s about providing a consistent experience regardless of whether the team is U.S. or Canada based, an Original Six team or in a town not typically known for its deep hockey presence.

Digitized gamesheet of an 1926 NHL game
Digitized gamesheet of an 1926 NHL game

“There is a challenge talking to different voices. Hometown fans love their teams, they are tribal and passionate….We do want to have that one-on-one conversation where you are talking to different fanbases. We look at it on a macro level where we are promoting all of the players,” he added.

Once the complete archives of the NHL’s statistics are fully integrated, new tools and functionality of NHL.com/Stats, including advanced filtering and visualizations, will be applied to the entire league’s history, Foster said. Looking at the future, the NHL has tentative plans to take advantage of the HANA platform to roll out sensor technology in player jerseys, including the power of HANA to collect new metrics including puck speed or distance traveled by players.

So as the Penguins’ all-star captain Sidney Crosby gets set to face-off with Sharks’s vet centre Joe Thornton tonight, Foster offers there’s nothing like the NHL playoffs. And using enterprise technology, Foster is hoping that that deeper digital engagement ensures that it stays that way.

“I truly believe that the NHL is the best live experience around, especially in the playoffs. There is nothing like it.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Ryan Patrick
Ryan Patrick
Seasoned technology reporter, editor and senior content producer.

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