Among its diverse fan base, the National Hockey League (NHL) is affectionately known as the fastest game on ice, showcasing the speed and skill of the best hockey players in the world nightly in a fast-paced physical game with very little stoppage in play. Among the four major professional sports leagues in the US, hockey is the only one where possession has to be earned, as teams relentlessly battle for the puck on every shift. This creates nuances that don’t show up in an NHL box score. Goals, assists, and goaltending statistics such as save percentage tell only a small part of the story. A snapshot of a moment in an NHL game yields a plethora of revealing information: Who hustled for a loose puck? Who separated an attacking winger from the puck? Who created a shooting lane? Who did the dirty work on a penalty kill?
Capturing elusive unofficial statistics like these, which play an integral part in an NHL game, is a challenge that the NHL turned to SAP technology, specifically SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud, to help solve. League executives knew that presenting some of these statistics in a visually appealing way would not only please the avid and astute hockey fans who cherish these nuances, but also help average hockey fans better appreciate the subtleties of the game.
In hockey-speak, it was time to shake up the lines.
“The game continues to get faster every year,” says David Lehanski, NHL Senior Vice President of Integrated Sales. “As the game becomes faster and stronger, it becomes somewhat more of a challenge to tell the story of how good it is and how incredible some of the plays are. We realized that we needed to advance our statistical platform, and in addition, do it in a way that could help us tell the stories that we weren’t telling and tell the stories we were telling better.”
We needed to advance our statistical platform, and in addition, do it in a way that could help us tell the stories that we weren’t telling and tell the stories we were telling better.
— David Lehanski, Senior Vice President, Integrated Sales, NHL
Center Line Handshake
An exhaustive search for a technology partner steered the NHL toward SAP, both for help with an overhaul of the NHL’s statistics portal as well as for opportunities to modernize its IT infrastructure. In both cases, SAP HANA was the platform of choice to assist the NHL with extending its technology landscape. Just as with the elimination of the two-line offensive pass, the NHL wasn’t afraid to shake things up in a push to break free from tradition to generate more excitement.
In February 2015, the NHL unveiled the initial fan-facing aspect of its partnership with SAP with its new statistics platform at NHL.com.
According to Lehanski and Chris Foster, the NHL’s Director of Digital Business Development, another contributing factor in the NHL turning to SAP as its technology partner was the NHL’s existing familiarity with the company — the San Jose Sharks play in the SAP Center. One driver for change was the need to make the portal more interactive and comprehensive. Before the move to SAP software, statistics were presented in a simple spreadsheet format. League leaders, for example, defaulted to points scored and a user could sort team and player statistics by various categories, such as win percentage, power play goals, assists, or penalty minutes. Embedded links would take fans to a player or team page, but other than some thumbnail images, it was a mostly text-heavy, table-based presentation.
Another driver was the surge in popularity of fantasy hockey. In fantasy, fans act as the general managers of their own team; they compile a roster in a mock draft, and those real statistics then determine a fantasy team’s performance in competition with other fantasy teams. Because of this, analytics is playing a more prominent role in how fans assess and understand the game. Fans can join a fantasy league and access a trove of fantasy information directly from the NHL.com/Stats homepage.
To improve the user experience, the NHL’s directive for SAP was to create a destination that put NHL fans in the driver’s seat to consume statistics and information in a more individualized fashion. The vision was that customizing data should be as personal an experience as watching a game; every NHL fan who visits the site could conceivably come away with a different story — one that they designed themselves.
“SAP helped us take the wealth of data that we have and put it to scientific analysis,” says Foster. “Now, we can layer that on some new statistics to help us explain the game better and tell those stories. It’s a toolset for fans and enthusiasts to go in, create and experiment, and really make their own analysis.”
A Fresh Layer of Ice
Future plans for the new NHL.com statistics platform will include the digitized versions of historical box scores — information that hadn’t been available on the previous site. That historical record is one example of how the new site will be more interactive, with users able to easily pull up and compare teams and players from different eras. With SAP Lumira as the visualization layer, users are not restricted to table-based sorting but can instead populate colorful charts and graphs with information they select.
“This is the central idea behind the fan-driven experience,” Lehanski says. “Take goalies as one example. Save percentage and goals against average have served as the primary statistics for a goalie’s performance. But now fans can look at that in a much richer context, taking into account the score of the game, the time of the game, whether it is a shorthanded goal or a power-play goal. The fan is now the data scientist. From our research, we know the average NHL fan is incredibly tech-savvy and is on the cutting edge as far as consuming advanced technologies, and we needed a digital platform that could deliver on those expectations.”
Because SAP HANA stores data in memory, it delivers information in near real time. This means fans can derive instantaneous insights from almost any query, while behind the scenes, the SAP HANA processing engine is making calculations on millions of data points. The benefit of the refreshed statistics page is not limited to how appealing the site looks to a curious and engaged fan base.
Announcers can much more easily put in-game statistics into historical context, quickly finding out how often a scoring feat has been duplicated, for example. The use of SAP HANA in a cloud-based environment optimizes the dissemination of information to a wide range of parties.
“This encompasses NHL.com, our mobile app, the NHL Network, our partnership with NBC, and all NHL-owned media,” says Lehanski. “Representations and utilizations of these statistics and analysis will cover all of those platforms.”
From the Locker Room to the Board Room
According to Lehanski and Foster, though one of the contributing factors in the NHL turning to SAP as its technology partner was SAP’s existing NHL ties; after the NHL executives saw what SAP HANA could do, any affiliation meant far less than what the technology could deliver.
“From the technology standpoint, we were shown demos of SAP HANA, and it proved to be an incredibly powerful, fast, and flexible platform and certainly unlike anything we were currently working with,” Lehanski explains. “When we beta tested some of our data, we received some pretty instantaneous output and we were won over.”
While there are still ongoing discussions between SAP and the NHL concerning which of its on-premise systems will best be served by migrating to the SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud, the NHL does foresee utilizing SAP HANA throughout all of the league’s channels and brands, and not limiting SAP HANA as a platform solely for statistics.
“There’s an SAP HANA play across several pieces of business,” says Lehanski. “We’ve amassed some fairly significant customer databases from a variety of our platforms, including for NHL GameCenter LIVE, shop.NHL.com, and our NHL app. This data currently all resides in different databases, and the plan is to migrate all of it to SAP HANA, with appropriate security measures in place, which will open analytics beyond a statistical standpoint and allow us to apply some predictive analytics as to how to better serve this customer base.”