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Bring back the glow puck; no, I’m serious

The glow puck was a special kind of terrible when it debuted more than 20 years ago. But that was a different time, and now we have different technology: high-def and 4K video that’s so vivid you can see the spit flying out of coach Joel Quenneville’s angry maw.

So while NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday danced around the concept of a glow-puck revival for nationally televised games, I have to wonder: Is it time for a glow-puck renaissance?

To review, for those who might not remember when the NHL was presented on television with fighting cartoon robots and a puck with a comet tail: Fox was trying to solve an inherent problem for hockey in the pre-HDTV days, which was the ability for casual fans to follow the puck. In 1994, after winning NHL rights, Fox Sports president David Hill wanted to develop a way to better track the puck on screen. FoxTrax was a revolutionary system that used infrared technology to follow LED lights that were imbedded inside the puck. They pulsed 30 times per second as modified cameras picked up the signal, and the result was a peculiar hazy oval of color around the puck that made it look like a blueberry that had been marinated in toxic waste.

Oh, and when the puck would travel over 70 mph, it would grow a long red tail behind it. (Imagine watching an NBA game and a giant rainbow trailed every 3-point shot. Basically, that.)

The glow puck lasted only two seasons (1996-97 and ’97-98) before the NHL moved on from the network, but the aftertaste lingers like a gulp of spoiled milk. The glow puck was hideously distracting. The technology wasn’t there yet for this kind of augmented reality; the special effects were cheesy enough that it looked like hockey by way of a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers production budget. In the pantheon of bad ideas during the Gary Bettman administration, the glow puck is frequently referenced as the nadir. I’ve previously ranked it among the worst ideas in sports history.

Yet in many ways, the glow puck is a lot like the NHL commissionership of Bettman: Criticized at its inception for being fundamentally different, then forging a legacy with legions of detractors but also those who begrudgingly admit that it’s had some positive impact.

The technology used in the glow puck was repurposed in a number of innovative ways by Sportvision, a tech company launched in 1998 by the glow puck’s creators. That CGI first-down line in the NFL, and that pitch tracker in baseball, and the little info boxes you see whizzing around with cars or boats during races? All that tech tracks back to FoxTrax.

Bettman mentioned this with some pride on Monday as he was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, which counts Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball and Pat Sajak among its honorees.

“While it was the subject of much discussion, and some derision, in 1996, the technology of Fox Sports’ glowing puck was the precursor of the first-down line that has become standard practice for any football broadcast, and any number of innovations,” he said. “Actually, we are working on a dramatically updated version of that technology, and we have plans to roll out updated player and puck tracking. We are literally going back to the future.”

(Are you picturing Bettman playing Chuck Berry at a high-school dance or riding on a hoverboard?)

Now, these comments are likely centered on player and puck tracking, which is something the NHL has dabbled in for a few years. There have been player-tracking experiments at the NHL All-Star Game, as infrared sensors in the puck and on player jerseys deliver loads of information: time on ice, velocity of shots, speed of skating and, eventually, even the ability to re-create an entire game in a virtual landscape.

The NHL hasn’t bought fully into player tracking due to the enormous cost of fitting arenas with the proper technology — and some NHLPA pushback on the litany of information that technology could make public about player performance. The league is still talking with tech companies about it, and clearly Bettman sees it as part of the NHL’s future on television.

So if the NHL ever got player tracking up and running in every arena … whither the glow puck?

As an unabashed glow-puck hater, I’ve been wrestling with whether I loathe the concept or the execution. If it’s the latter, perhaps the technology is there for it to be less wonky, to be less obtrusive, to stop making it look like the players are being threatened by an aggressive, hockey-playing Grimace.

The real debate today is one of necessity. The glow puck was born so newbies could follow the action, but the current technology means you can’t miss it. OK, there might still be some virtue to it: Hockey is usually filmed with one giant swinging camera at center ice, which means it remains the only sport in which the main piece of equipment — the puck — disappears from sight at times during scrums in the corner. Knowing where the puck is in that instance could be beneficial. (Not as beneficial as adding a dozen camera setups around the rink, but hey, the owners aren’t decreasing seating capacity for bigger ice or more TV angles.)

So, open hearts and open minds: I would be willing to see what Glow Puck 2.0 looks like 21 years later. Because of the better tech and the crisper picture. But only with an agreed-upon limited usage: outdoor games, NHL All-Star Games, random regular-season games involving either Zdeno Chara or Shea Weber if we’re going with the comet tail again. Oh, and never the Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps a different generation, several steps removed from the curmudgeonly hockey culture that greeted the glow puck, will view it differently.

“Our next generation of viewer has come up playing video games,” said Jerry Steinberg, a technical manager for Fox Sports during the glow-puck era. “It’s right in their power alley. You have to make it visually interesting.”

But, above all else: Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and even the kitschiest failed experiments from the 1990s get their eventual comeback. (Crystal Pepsi, people. They made more Crystal Pepsi.)

I’m here for a glow-puck redux. If nothing else, it’ll make Jaromir Jagr feel 25 again.

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