It jumped out right away to Blue Jackets assistant coach Brad Larsen, as he watched a play unfold from his spot on the bench.
One of the Jackets’ players, who’d been making a particular mistake in the game, had just corrected it. Larsen couldn’t wait to give him some positive reinforcement, so he reached for one of three iPad Pro tablets on the bench.
The iPads are hooked into live game footage through an app, and it’s broadcast on a short time delay. Larsen, like a lot of NHL assistants, can use it as a real-time coaching tool.
“There were some things we were trying to hammer home with someone in a game, and I remember, vividly, thinking, ‘He did it,'” Larsen said. “So, I rewound it, and as soon as he got off the ice, I was like, ‘Look.” You could see his face, and he was like, ‘What did I do wrong?’ And I said, ‘Nothing. Look. Remember we talked about this?’ and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah … right.'”
That moment wouldn’t have been possible at this point in the season last year.
Video screens have been on NHL benches the past two seasons, ever since the addition of in-game coaching challenges, but this the first full season in which all 31 NHL teams have access to real-time video via iPads on the bench.
The concept was introduced prior to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, for all 16 teams that qualified for the postseason, and was expanded to include the entire league this season. Now, all teams have access to live game video at their fingertips, from the opening puck-drop to the final horn.
“There’s probably about a five-second delay on it, so in a game if I see something happen, I can grab the iPad,” said Larsen, who runs the Jackets’ power play. “By the time I grab it, it’s almost to that play, within that five-second range. So, then you can scroll back one second, five seconds, 10 seconds … as far as you want to get it.”
Try getting a dry-erase board and marker to do that.
“For special teams, it’s great,” Larsen said. “You can give players feedback and information right away. They come off the ice, and say something went wrong or they’re questioning something, and I can grab it right away and scroll back to find it. It’s usually the overhead view, so you can see pretty good.”
If you’ve watched a Blue Jackets broadcast, you’ve probably seen Larsen do just that during a game. It’s possible because of a multi-year deal between Apple and the NHL, which was struck last year.
Other professional sports have added similar technology upgrades to their sidelines and dugouts, but the NHL is the first to offer real-time video to coaches and players.
Coaches use it to see where defensive breakdowns occur, or where vulnerabilities might be. Players use it to check out spacing on odd-man rushes, defensive reads they might’ve missed or even the opposing goalie’s shootout tendencies.
“I love it,” rookie forward Sonny Milano said. “You get to see plays that, maybe you make a mistake or something, you get back to the bench and the coach can explain it to you. If you don’t fully understand, sometimes he can just get the iPad and show you, and then you completely get it.”
How does it work?
Each team is assigned three iPad Pros, which can be used on the bench.
They’re each set up without access to administrator privileges, so their lone function is to run an app called “iBench,” which allows coaches to tap into live video feeds for real-time information.
What’s downloaded is through an encrypted wireless system, which separates the video into each team’s individual feed. Neither team can access the other’s information or video.
That doesn’t mean the system is flawless, however.
“Oh, there’s problems all the time,” Larsen said. “I think we’ve yet to go into an arena where they’ve hooked it up, and it was all perfect and went through without a problem. There’s always glitches, or it freezes. You’ve got to think, there’s so much going on in the arena, so you have your problems.”
There are also video monitors on the bench, which show coaches game footage along with clips they request from video coaches like Dan Singleton, the Jackets’ video coach/coordinator.
As Larsen watches games, if there’s something he’d like to see or show a player, he simply asks Singleton to cut that segment up into a clip and make it accessible on the video screen or iPad.
“Most rinks have an overhead view that we can tap into,” Larsen said. “That’s what we use all the time. Sometimes they call it the ‘Coaches Cam,’ because you pretty much get the overhead. You can see behind the play. It’s obviously not a close-up, like what they’re seeing on the [scoreboard screens] but you can see a lot. It’s great for system work on your backchecks, and that kind of stuff. You can pick it up right away.”
Larsen is usually the only Blue Jackets coach who uses the iPad in-game, primarily for one reason. Even though he’s got a lot of responsibilities, he also has the least going on while the game is being played.
Head coach John Tortorella is ingrained in watching matchups, particularly in matching forward lines against the opposing head coach. Assistant Brad Shaw controls the defense pairings, monitoring which players are hot or cold, and he coordinates the penalty-kill.
Larsen runs the power play and offers input in all areas. He doesn’t have a specific position group to run, though, so he wears the headset and stays in communication with Singleton about video reviews and clips.
“I’m the only one who has a little bit of time,” Larsen said.
How much does it help?
Answers vary among players and coaches, when they’re asked whether iPad video technology is a help or hindrance.
The general feeling is that it’s a bonus, but there can be too much of a good thing.
“I like it and I don’t like it sometimes,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. “It can be overused. I think there’s a flow to the game that, sometimes you know you screwed up or whatever, and it’s better to just wash it out of your head and get going for the next one. But then there are times where you didn’t see a read, and you’re like, ‘Hey, I want to see that and see what happens.’ There’s good and bad. You’ve just got to use it the right way.”
Striking that balance is something Larsen said he’s still learning to do. It’s a process, and he’s only halfway into his first full season with the iPad technology available.
“As coaches, we’re always looking at what happened,” Larsen said. “Usually it’s scoring chances … ‘where was the breakdown?’ and systematic stuff, like, ‘Why, in that forecheck, did we get burned? Who was it?’ But you don’t want it to be a negative. Sometimes behind the bench you can get that negative tone, and it’s not for that.”
It’s for helping players see things better, so they can improve at a faster pace.
“It can be a really good teaching tool,” Larsen said. “It’s basically an instant teaching tool, instead of me trying to draw on the board what happened. You can see the visual and go, ‘Oh, OK, I know what you’re talking about.’ It’s just how you present it.”
Do it with too much of a negative lean, and a player could either tune it out or get down on themselves. Those possibilities existed prior to iPads on the bench, but having real-time video can exacerbate those issues even more.
“There’s pros and cons,” Larsen said. “Sometimes, I think it is too much information. You could go to a very negative place with the video. You really could. You don’t want it to seep into your room with your players, where everything’s negative. It’s a teaching tool, and that’s how it should be.”
Larsen has noticed another pitfall, too.
It tends to attract a little too much attention from some players, who are prone to continually seeking ways to improve – even at their own disadvantage.
“This is a game of instincts, and a game of reactions and you don’t want to be thinking too much,” Larsen said. “Information is good, and it’s about how you use it and process it, but if it’s every shift, every play … sometimes I’m just like, ‘Hey, just go play. You’ve got to play the game. You’ve got to rely on your instincts. You’re a good player. Just go play.’ There are some guys coming over every second or third shift, and I’m like, ‘That’s enough.’ It gets to be too much.”
Special teams might be the lone exception. That’s where a lot of coaches now use their iPads like dry-erase boards.
“I think with power play, penalty kill, you can give them some instant information, especially if you get one, two or three in a period,” Larsen said. “You can say, ‘Hey, here’s the adjustment we’re going to try and make,’ or ‘Here’s an area we’re going to try and expose.'”
Otherwise, they play it by ear.
“A lot of hockey is just flow, and read and react, so you don’t want to over-coach it … during a game especially,” Foligno said. “It’s a tool, so why not use it? It’s helpful in certain aspects. You just don’t want to over-use it.”