Let’s talk about FoxTrax

I know, I know.  It’s a dirty word for long time NHL fans, but as much as we would like to pretend it didn’t happen, FoxTrax was a thing.  Not only was it a thing – a poorly executed thing – it was very innovative in the world of sports.  Granted, hockey itself has pretty much stuck to a score and time overlay that’s expandable to include a power play timer, but things you see in other sports are direct decedents of FOX’s glowing abomination on ice.  Now, over 20 years later, there is talk about similar technology returning to the National Hockey League.

Sports broadcasting innovation

The year is 1996.  FOX had the broadcasting rights to the NHL in the United States, and aimed to come up with a solution for a common complaint about hockey back in the days of fuzzy old standard definition televisions.  The complaint?  Casual viewers couldn’t keep track of the puck.  I mean, I’m sure anyone can miss a black dot on a white sheet of ice, right?  I digress.  People apparently couldn’t follow the action, and FOX, along with a company called Etak, set out to solve that problem.

Splitting a puck directly in half (as one would slice a bagel), an array of infrared emitters, a shock sensor, and a circuit board and battery were placed inside, the two halves of the puck then glued back together with an epoxy.  Carefully considered were the weight and balance of the puck, as NHL Chief Engineer Rick Cavallaro stated that the players could tell if it was even off by a slight amount.  Specialized cameras picked up the infrared emissions from the puck. FOX’s “Puck Truck” overlaid appropriate (for lack of a better term) on-screen graphics based on data from the cameras.   The result was a blue hue around the puck at all times, along with a blue tail to track passes, and a red comet tail on shots 70MPH or higher.

It was a technological breakthrough, and a monumental moment in the eventual history of televised sports.  Hockey fans hated it.

Reactions to the innovation

Sure, casual fans were better able to follow the action.  In fact, 7 out of 10 FOX viewers surveyed said they liked the addition of the glowing puck.  Hell, 14 year old me thought it was “cool.”  35 year old me, not so much.  Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski wasn’t a big fan either.  “Imagine if you were watching the Super Bowl and every time the running back disappeared in a pile of tacklers he started glowing like a blueberry from Chernobyl.”

“The inference being that (Americans are) too hockey-stupid to follow the play or that we need to be distracted by shiny new toys in order to watch the sport.”

The future of NHL Broadcasts

FoxTrax died a quiet death at the end of the 1997-98 season as ABC took over NHL broadcasts in the United States.  Oddly enough, it’s an article from ABC-owned ESPN that inspired this post.  The article notes that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said, “While it was the subject of much discussion, and some derision, in 1996, the technology of Fox Sports’ glowing puck was the precursor of the first-down line that has become standard practice for any football broadcast, and any number of innovations.  Actually, we are working on a dramatically updated version of that technology, and we have plans to roll out updated player and puck tracking. We are literally going back to the future.”

Before reading the article, I’d responded to the link shared on Facebook with essentially the same sentiments as Gary Bettman.  I know, I feel dirty.  I referenced the on-field overlays used in football, and the strike zone overlay used in FOX’s coverage of Major League Baseball as technology that was not only created, but actually done well in the wake of FoxTrax.  The most interesting takeaway from Bettman’s quote, however, is that they “have plans to roll out updated player and puck tracking.”

Say what?

Bettman likely isn’t referring to bringing back FoxTrax in it’s original form, with modified puck and red-glowing shot trails.  I feel it’s more akin to things we’ve already seen from the league.  Showing player statistics such as ice time, skating speed, shot speed, and things of that nature.  Personally, I found it helpful (though not absolutely necessary) when the FoxTrax puck would glow along the near boards, rendering it visible for fans at home who don’t have x-ray vision to see through wooden boards on their television.

Overall, I don’t hate the idea of implementing new old technical innovations into an NHL broadcast.  However, taking a minimally invasive approach may be the key to doing it correctly.

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