Canadian Hockey Group Scouts Out RFID’s Ability to Measure Athletic Skills

By Claire Swedberg

The Northern Ontario Hockey Association is exploring the use of passive tags to collect data regarding the performance of teenage players during team tryouts and practice sessions.

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The Northern Ontario Hockey Association (NOHA), a Canadian minor- and junior-level ice hockey governing body, is considering the adoption of an RFID-based solution called NEXT Testing, for use by all coaches and teams throughout the association. NOHA, which selects and manages teams of players from the region in multiple age levels—known as Team NOHA—employed NEXT Testing in November 2014 at its Team NOHA trials.

NEXT Testing, provided by HockeyTech, an Ontario technology company owned by Florida-based Siegel Enterprises, was used to collect test results from competing athletes to judge who could play on Team NOHA for the 2014-2015 season. In the future, provided that NOHA adopts the technology, it would be used for that annual testing at all age levels, but also by team coaches and players to assess their strengths and weaknesses on the ice. This, says Jason Marchand, NOHA’s executive director, will help players to improve their skills.

A hockey player taps his wristband against the NEXT Testing reader before entering the rink.

During the Team NOHA tryouts in November, those 38 athletes wore RFID tags to link them to data about their performance during the association’s North Bay Battalion Development Weekend. The NEXT Testing automated system, which also employs RFID infrared (IR) sensors, evaluated each player’s agility and speed, and presented the results to the team in an XML file. Based on those results, NOHA selected two goalies, six defense and 11 forward players.

There are approximately 50 NOHA “minor midget” hockey clubs throughout Ontario, and a select few of the players in those clubs could go on to become part of Team NOHA at the ages of 15 through 18. Being a member of Team NOHA—thereby playing against other NOHA teams, as well as those from other regions—can lead to being recruited by National Hockey League (NHL) professional teams if an individual’s performance is impressive enough. But first, minor midget team members must qualify for Team NOHA by completing some testing.

So in November, 38 members of the teams (all born in 1999) were tested during the North Bay Battalion Development Weekend, all vying to be one of 19 players chosen to play hockey for Team NOHA. Their selection was based on their speed and skill on the ice, as determined by the results of 14 tests. Assuming the association approves the system’s adoption in May—something that Marchand expects will happen—all 50 NOHA-sanctioned minor midget teams will begin using the technology to test all of their own players, as well as evaluate their performance.

Typically, a NOHA representative uses a stopwatch to gauge a skater’s speed, with results manually written down on paper, according to Ian Mosher, HockeyTech’s head of player testing. The NEXT Testing service for measuring athletic performance was developed in 2006 by a group of entrepreneurs in Madison, Wisc., with an interest in hockey and how technology could be used for testing procedures. The company, also called NEXT Testing, was purchased by HockeyTech in September 2013 and moved to Ontario. NEXT Texting is one of multiple technology-based products or services that HockeyTech sells.

The system developed by NEXT Testing in 2006, and first used by hockey players two years later, consists of speed tests administered by HockeyTech, which provides the results to the hockey team. The solution employs IR sensors that send 34 beams across sections of an ice rink, Mosher says, and detect each time a player passes through a given beam, and thus how quickly he is moving in any specific direction. NEXT Testing’s founders also wanted the testing system to provide anonymity, so that each player’s performance could be measured without those viewing the test results knowing that individual’s name. This ensured that no human-based biases could occur if coaches and others making team selections knew the names of the competing teens. To accomplish this goal, they sought an automated method of collecting an ID for each player without including his name on the results.

When a player prepares to take a test—such as the one offered at the North Bay Battalion Development Weekend at Memorial Gardens, in North Bay—he provides his name and other identifying information, such as the club for which he plays. The teen receives a wristband containing an embedded low-frequency (LF) 134 kHz RFID tag from Texas Instruments. The reusable wristband’s ID number is linked to that player’s name in the NEXT Testing software, and his name is not viewed again until the highest performing players are selected for the team.

In general, the NEXT Testing service begins by having players watch a video describing the 14 tests they will undergo on the ice. Then, one at a time, each player proceeds to a Texas Instruments reader, mounted at a gate to the rink, and taps his wristband near it. The reader captures the bracelet’s ID and forwards that information to the computer running the NEXT Testing software. The player then awaits a green light above the gate, opens the gate and skates onto the rink. NEXT Testing personnel instruct him through the 14 tests, and the IR sensors capture the speed and accuracy at which he skates, by determining how fast and how accurately he reached the proper spot on the rink. Those results are paired with the RFID tag in his wristband.

Once Team NOHA’s coaches finished reviewing all of the test results during the North Bay Battalion Development Weekend, they selected the highest performers. The software linked the RFID numbers to the names of those players, who could then be informed of their status.

Mosher says that prior to being acquired by HockeyTech, NEXT Testing considered using bar-code scans as the identifying function of the solution, rather than radio frequency identification. However, he adds, RFID was deemed more reliable and easier to read, and the wristbands could be reused. Sometime after being acquired by HockeyTech in 2013, NEXT Testing ceased offering its testing service for approximately one year. However, once NOHA gives its approval, Mosher expects the testing service will be used by hundreds of minor midget players. The NOHA-affiliated teams are organized annually, and testing takes place once each year. For performance evaluation, a player could use the technology to measure his reaction times during practice sessions, and he and his coaches could review the results and compare them against previous findings, or determine areas in which he is strongest or weakest.

The testing information will not only be used by NOHA. NHL teams, for instance, can request the testing results from HockeyTech, and review a particular team member’s results throughout the course of his three years with Team NOHA.