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Tuomas Nyholm — The preacher of the smart puck

5 min

Now we are not in a fast-paced hockey rink but in one of the safest places in Finland, the core of Telia’s new data center. This is where servers are crunching the data that, in the hands of Tuomas Nyholm, will become the new future of hockey.

“Even I do not quite understand what sparked my passion for this. I have done this work for a couple decades but I have never put my heart and soul into anything like I do now,” says Tuomas Nyholm who was elected Hockey Reporter of the Year this spring.

The thousands of servers buzzing around us play a key role in Nyholm’s vision. He believes that the smart puck will take the hockey viewing experience to a whole new level in the very near future.

“The more I have examined this, the more I believe it,” says Nyholm, who also hosts Telia’s Liiga broadcasts.

Just two years ago Nyholm would have begged to differ. At that time, he considered data just a useless auxiliary tool of no significance to the viewers. The hockey statistics concept had remained the same for decades. The screen would show the goals, passes, penalty minutes and occasionally plus/minus statistics.

FROM A HOCKEY DUDE TO A NERD MAN

The rapid development of technology, however, started changing things. When Nyholm really started getting into the topic two years ago, the shell of the hockey dude was making way to an emerging data wizard.

“Yes, I have to face it. I am becoming a nerd,” Nyholm exclaims.

He emphasises, however, that data must first and foremost be harnessed to cater to the viewers. This means that new information must be introduced to the screen gradually.

“We need to use a pipette to dose the data so that the viewers can keep up with the change. We already started the work last spring by introducing momentum graphics in the broadcasts to reflect the focus of the game,” Nyholm explains.

More data is to come when the puck hits the ice on Thursday. During the early season, there will be data on blocks and passes, for example.

“It will be interesting to see how many percent of Kristian Kuusela’s passes go to the right blade,” Nyholm uses as an example.

Nyholm repeatedly stresses that the value of data does not lie in the individual pieces. The great change is accomplished when data is combined.

“This will cause the greatest change in hockey in decades. The decisive element is being able to present the right questions to the algorithm to provide answers with value to the viewers. With the screen displaying the information that Tappara has lost the puck in its defensive zone four times in ten minutes, the image of the game flow starts to emerge in a new way,” Nyholm explains.

EMOTIONAL BUSINESS WITH HARD FACTS

Although Nyholm is preaching about data, he knows full well that hockey is about emotion.

“Of course, this does not change the soul of the game but helps us better understand that soul. It is great that we can feed hard facts to the emotion.”

Nyholm believes that screen data from the smart puck will inevitably improve the appeal of hockey as a TV sport. He is convinced that the reform will bring new audiences to the screen in addition to gluing the current ones more tightly to their couches.

“In light of the figures, it may be surprising to notice that a match without goals can be excellent hockey,” Nyholm laughs.

Nyholm emphasises that Finland is doing internationally pioneering work. He thanks the Finnish ice hockey league and Telia for their unprejudiced approach with the smart puck. The breakthrough is enabled by Bitwise Oy’s technology, which finally gives the possibility for sufficiently detailed, real-time data on the game events.

“It is important that the technology identifies whether the manoeuvre is a shot or merely passing the puck. Or whether the puck went straight into the goal or bounced there from the player’s derriere,” Nyholm describes.

“Well, there is also the risk that the fans will have to reconsider their favourite team when the image is supplemented with cold facts,” Nyholm grins.

 

Text: Janne Kaijärvi

Photo: Otto Uotila

 

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