NHL ups tracking technology for 2nd ‘Big City Greens Classic’

The NHL is returning to “Big City Greens,” this time using two types of puck and player tracking technology to bring the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins into the animated world.

The second “NHL Big City Greens Classic” will air March 9 on ESPN+, Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney+ when the Penguins visit the Bruins at 3 p.m. ET. The broadcast is a real-time volumetric animation of NHL players and teams modeled after characters on Disney Channel’s animated comedy “Big City Greens,” whose characters skate alongside animated versions of the NHL players.

The game at TD Garden will be re-created in a virtual environment, featuring 3D animated players whose movements are synced with the real-life Penguins and Bruins.

The traditional game telecast will be available on ABC and ESPN+.

Last season’s game featuring the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers was the first of its kind, as fans watched characters Cricket, Tilly and Gramma and a chicken referee create a unique alternative viewing experience.

“We learned a lot from last year, and thankfully it was pretty much all good,” said David Lehanski, the NHL’s executive VP for business development and innovation. “The whole point of this is to bring the game to a new audience. The composition of the audience from the data that we got proves that it worked.”

The most notable data point, Lehanski said, was that while NHL viewership typically skews 60% male, the “Big City Greens Classic” flipped that to 60% female. He also said the number of viewers who watched the full game, or later watched it on video on demand, was in “the hundreds of thousands,” meaning the game had staying power during and beyond the initial broadcast.

The big innovation for this edition of the “Big City Greens Classic” is in the NHL’s puck and player tracking technology. Last season’s game featured the league’s NHL Edge tracking system, which collects data through sensors on player uniforms and inside the puck itself. That allowed the broadcast to track the locations of players and the puck, but not necessarily all of their movements.

This season’s game will use the league’s new Hawk-Eye Innovations optical tracking system with NHL Edge to better capture how the players’ arms and legs move, as well as their sticks. The system tracks a minimum of 24 points on the body, from the neck down to the toes, with other tracking points on the stick.

“The players and the ‘Big City Greens’ characters are going to move in a more realistic manner. They’re going to move very similar to, if not exactly like, the players on the ice, with their stick and body position and their limbs,” Lehanski said.

The NHL has big plans for the Hawk-Eye system. Lehanski said that it’s installed in around six to eight arenas currently but that the NHL plans to have it installed in all 32 arenas near the start of the 2024-25 season.

The optical tracking system will add valuable context to what happens on a play that the NHL Edge location tracking doesn’t capture.

“If you have the puck and you’re skating towards me and I’m playing defense, we’ll see that data. But if the puck all of a sudden goes into the corner, we don’t really know in real time why that happened. Did I stick check it? Did you mishandle it? Did you fall? Like, what actually happened? Now, we’ll see that,” Lehanski said.

He said the optical tracking will allow teams to better understand the body position of their players and better define things like shot type in the tracking data.

“When you take that NHL Edge positional data and you add in the stick and limb [tracking], we believe there’s almost nothing we won’t be able to analyze in the game,” Lehanski said.

While the movements of the players will be more realistic than ever, the “Big City Greens Classic” promises to increase the absurdity from last year’s edition.

Cricket is coaching the Penguins — who will occasionally morph into animated penguins during play — having been endorsed by captain Sidney Crosby. Bruins captain Brad Marchand has endorsed Gramma as the coach for Boston.

“The younger generation of kids are really going to connect to this,” Marchand said. “A lot of the games are catered towards adults and older people. This is an opportunity for the young generation to connect with the game. Hopefully it allows them to have a better understanding and be a little more excited about watching.”

Another innovation this season: There will be a skills competition held between periods featuring the “Big City Greens” characters.

The ESPN commentators calling the action on the animated telecast — Drew Carter, Kevin Weekes and Arda Öcal — will wear virtual reality headsets for motion capture to immerse them in the animated environment of Times Circle.

The real-time animation will be produced by ESPN Edge Innovation Center and NHL Edge Innovation partner Beyond Sports. Outside the U.S., the “NHL Big City Greens Classic” will be available on Disney+ in select countries.

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