In Episode I: Defining Hockey Fan Experience Past, Present, and Future, it was a time of great promise for fans of the “coolest game on earth.” I had an amazing hockey weekend in Philadelphia accompanying Flyers great and alumni Brian Propp at a Flyers game and meeting Flyers fans and SAP customers in our suite. I saw the AHL Phantoms play in their first year in a new arena in Allentown, PA, and met Flyers president and former GM and player Paul Holmgren. I met and hung out with Flyers goalie alumni and Flyers/NHL commentator Brian Boucher. I witnessed a team “giving back” as the Flyers alumni, led by Propp, played a charity benefit game. Serendipitously, I met my childhood hero Flyers goalie great and Hall of Famer Bernie Parent and two of my late father’s favorite Flyers: Joe Watson and Bob “The Hound” Kelly.
Together, we triumphantly and collectively celebrated a tradition that had defined me since childhood – the Bruins and Flyers – since that magical spring day in 1974 with my father during a 1-0 Flyers Stanley Cup win 1-0 over the Bruins. Sadly, neither the Flyers nor Bruins would make the playoffs. But in a unique twist of fate, we saw the Manchester Monarchs (an AHL affiliate of the LA Kings) clinch the championship. I returned in September with my son to see the Monarchs raise their championship banner.
It would be a long off-season marked by Tuesday night adult hockey and a trip to New York City where I saw the Stanley Cup in the NHL store on the eve of the 2015 NHL playoffs. And the hockey fan experience continues to reemerge stronger than ever this season.
The 2016 NHL Winter Classic: A field of dreams on ice
The 2015–2016 hockey season began with great promise. The hometown Bruins would play the Montreal Canadians, their long-time rivals and the team with the most Stanley Cups, in the 2016 NHL Winter Classic. Now a yearly event to ring in the New Year, this outdoor game in stadiums across the United States and Canada has taken on nearly epic proportions. The Bruins-Canadians rivalry is one of the longest and greatest in all sports – no one will dispute that, except for some diehard Red Sox and Yankee fans I know. The game took place at Gillette Stadium, home of the 2015 Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots with a new fourth banner freshly hoisted in September.
My son and I walked into Gillette Stadium on New Year’s Eve Day to attend the NHL Winter Classic Alumni game. I’ve been a huge fan of alumni games for years, but this one was special. A veritable all-star roster of famous Bruins and Canadians legends laced them up that day and skated on this magical outdoor rink. As we took our seats, my son immediately pointed out the SAP logos at center ice and behind the net, just as we have seen at the SAP Center in San Jose, Madison Square Garden, and other arenas. I’ll defer the play-by-play to YouTube, but the experience was magical. From the player introductions, a stirring national anthems to a back-and-forth score, and finally a Bruins Alumni 5-4 win on a Ray Borque goal in a shootout.
Part of me didn’t want this to end. The inner child in me thought back to these players in their prime and stood in awe of their amazing talent even after retirement. However, with the sun dipping below the horizon, that feeling soon gave way to self-preservation as the cold reached bone-chilling temperatures.
The day was a magical celebration of hockey. Ambassadors from the past skated in the game they love one more time as teammates and rivals. And the winners hands-down were the NHL, the sport of hockey, and the fans.
NHL Winter Classic game day
As the fans streamed into Gillette Stadium on New Year’s Day, I was taken by the sheer magnitude of the event. Approximately 64,000 Bruins and Canadians fans would soon take their seats, cheer the Canadian and U.S. national anthems, and see their current-day hockey heroes come out to the magical serenade of the Boston Pops.
The Bruins and Canadians players lined up in stylish retro hockey jerseys created just for the Winter Classic, the coaches behind their benches in old-school varsity jackets. The opening face-off would bring an early Canadians goal. The Bruins would be outshot badly through much of the game, and the game would end with a solid 5-1 Montreal win. The magic of the day was unquestionable. The magnificence of the venue is indisputable. And the memories will clearly last a lifetime. Both teams saluted their fans after the final buzzer and quickly scurried out of the stadium to warmer places.
As I walked away from my seat, I gazed one more time down at this magical “field of dreams on ice.” I looked back at the SAP logos on the boards and the lower border of the field, very proud that my company was part of this magical day. Several times during the game, SAP was vividly featured, providing NHL statistics on NHL.com and sponsoring the Winter Classic. Meanwhile, the game’s statistics, powered by SAP, were displayed to millions of broadcast viewers across the world.
NHL statistics powered by SAP
For me, hockey and the NHL are great proof points of innovation, digital transformation, Big Data, real-time analytics, and more. Not only does SAP and SAP HANA help power real-time statistics for NHL.com, but they are also a huge part of the overall fan experience. Fans spend more time there than ever on NHL.com, aided by quick access to statistics on their favorite teams, players, and more. That’s truly fan engagement at the highest level. Like all Big Data and analytics, this experience is moving from reporting to prediction by using real-time data and insights to predict (and not just report) this fast-moving game. When Walter Gretzky told 9-year-old Wayne Gretzky to “skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been,” he made a prophetic prediction of the evolution of both hockey and sports analytics.
All of this change brings the questions: Would future NHL Winter Classic feature wearable technology on players? Would this be even more of a digital experience melded with the in-person attendance? Just as chips were added to shoes in the Boston Marathon to track individual runners in real time, I believe that day will come. Wearables for hockey players can track their efficiency in practice and skating stride, as well as predict injury by using predictive analytics.
Every day in hockey rinks, players and fans all around the world are engaged in the sport in the cloud and online with innovation and technology that is making the fan experience even better. I am thrilled to work for a great company that is helping the NHL with its “digital transformation of hockey.” I look forward to the amazing things to follow for the game I truly love.
To learn more about NHL.com statistics with insights from SAP and SAP HANA, please go to the NHL.com Stats page. For additional information on the evolution of this amazing effort please read Phasing into Analytics: The NHL and SAP Innovate Their Statistical Database.
Fred Isbell is a senior marketing director and head of Thought Leadership for Service and Support Marketing for SAP.