High Tech, Scouting, and Predicting Success in Hockey

In a Globe and Mail story by technology reporter Matt Hartley dated September 23, 2008 read how high tech is becoming part of scouting with the help of a devise called a Phantom.  It was developed in the artificial intelligence lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Here are clips from the article.

Scouting young hockey prospects is, at best, an inexact science. Something Lauren Sergio is aiming to change with the help of her trusty “force field-creating robotic arm.”

Science fiction it’s not. Since 2003, the York University associate kinesiology professor has spent two days each June running the top 100 NHL prospects through a hand-eye co-ordination test during the league’s annual scouting combine.

“We’re excited about the potential,” NHL Central Scouting director E.J. McGuire said. “But to this point, we are waiting on some of the longitudinal effects to come in on this kind of research.”

It seems simple enough. Each player must stickhandle a ball through four pylons spaced an even distance apart.

There’s just one small catch: the obstacles exist only on a computer screen and the stick is attached to a robotic arm that pushes back against the player, making it harder to maintain control.

In effect, it’s a way of measuring whether a player has “soft hands.” But Sergio believes it could become a predictor of whether a prospect will make it to the NHL or spend years toiling in the minors.

“We want to see if there’s any way to predict performance,” she said. “It’s all about control.”…

Sergio and her team are currently developing a formula that gauges the success each prospect has early on in their hockey careers – ice time, points etc. – and how those results compare to their Phantom tests. She hopes certain scores will indicate whether a player is more likely to develop into a Dion Phaneuf, a Matt Stajan or an Alexandre Daigle…

“The challenge is to come up with the best weighting factor,” she said. “So that, at the end of the [scouting combine] we can give the scouts all the scores and … tell them that this player has a 68-per-cent chance of being in the NHL in the next year, or two years, or three years.”…

Sergio’s colleague, Norman Gledhill, has run the fitness component of the scouting combine for the NHL for more than two decades, and was the one who initially suggested Sergio when the league asked for a way of testing hand-eye co-ordination…

“This gets down to the hair-splitting when all these other factors start to wash each other and you’re sitting at a draft table in the fourth round, or even before that, and you’re looking to set up your team’s hit list for this year,” McGuire said.

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