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Sabres taking unique approach to player development using iPad technology

Thursday, 12.20.2012 / 1:56 PM / Features
By Kevin Snow  - Sabres.com

There’s no question that iPads will be a popular gift on Christmas morning for adults and kids of all ages, but they’ve already become the electronic gadget of choice for Buffalo Sabres coaches and players.

Expanding on a program that was launched in Buffalo last season, the Sabres are now using iPads as teaching tools for members of the Rochester Americans, their AHL farm team. The Sabres are working with Global Aptitude of Baltimore to utilize the GamePlan app that allows coaches to send personalized video clips directly to players through iPads assigned by the team, along with full video of each game. The GamePlan app has already replaced the traditional paper playbook for several NFL teams, but the Sabres are believed to be the only NHL team currently using this technology.

Each player has a designated iPad that is pre-loaded with both Sabres and Amerks GamePlan apps. The iPads are “locked down,” preventing players from using them for personal reasons, and must be signed out and returned to the coaches every day. In essence, the team has created the first electronic “text book” for Sabres University.

“We have all the security on here so they can’t surf the internet, download apps or music. Everything is hockey specific,” explains Scott Schranz, the Sabres’ Director of Hockey Technologies & Analytics. “I remember when we told all the players they were getting iPads, and they all got pretty excited about it. Then we had to remind them it was for work, not for fun.”

Once a player is logged in to the app, the main screen features an Amerks logo in the upper left hand corner, and the logos of the 29 other AHL teams sorted below on a home page similar to what an everyday iPad user would see with the Newsstand or iBooks apps. Complete game videos against each opponent will appear in that team’s folder, along with any other videos from Amerks coaches pertaining to that particular team. (The Sabres purchased an HD camera to shoot all home and away Amerks games because HD feeds aren’t always available in AHL arenas.)

Within the Amerks folder are team-related video clips, along with player-specific videos that can be created by any member of the Rochester or Buffalo coaching staff. Videos can range from special teams system clips, to a tip from a coach on how a player can improve a particular area of his game.

Using the Coach’s Eye program, a Sabres or Amerks coach can breakdown a video clip with a telestrator while adding his comments through a voice recorder built in to the app. Once the video clip is compressed, it is imported into the GamePlan app. While watching and listening to the clip, the players can view it in slow motion with frame-by-frame scrubbing abilities. All of these video clips can be streamed immediately using wi-fi, or downloaded for play at any time.

While the players aren’t mandated to sign out an iPad every day, Schranz says they are easily able to monitor many facets of individual usage in Rochester. A naughty or nice list, if you will.

“We track every player that takes out and returns their iPad. There’s also a built-in reporting system in the app. I can go in and look at how many times a player has logged into it, how many times they’ve reviewed a video clip, how many times they’ve downloaded video or how many times they’ve looked at the documents. We are easily able to monitor who’s using the program and who isn’t.”

The Sabres actually began using iPads last season in a couple of different forms. Players could watch video immediately after games at home or on the road, with every shift broken down and coded individually by video coach Corey Smith using the SportsCode program. Game video was downloaded following each game, and iPads were made available to be taken home or used on the team charter.

Assistant coach Kevyn Adams even had an iPad on the bench during home games that was tied into a wide angle overhead camera that was able to shoot the entire ice at once, providing him with instant video analysis.

“It’s essentially the same type of principle as what we’re doing now, but we were working wirelessly,” explains Schranz. “The computer would capture everything, create the event and post it to a web site as it happened. So maybe about a minute after a goal was scored, it would be compressed by the computer and placed on to an intranet site. With the iPad connected directly to that site, Kevyn could pull the clip up. At any point in the game, he could go back and watch any goal scored during that game from the overhead camera. They were using it more for positional type of stuff.”

The technology has been expanded this season – now almost any game event can be viewed, not just individual shifts. For instance, if Cody Hodgson wants to view all the faceoffs he took during a game against Binghamton in the neutral zone on the power play, he’s just a few clicks away from making this happen. He would then be able to watch these faceoffs as individual clips or one continuous video.

“The program is definitely more robust than it was last season,” says Schranz. “Basically we just saved their shifts as a movie and they could watch those after the game. Now, they can watch any event in the game. They can watch all the hits, all the faceoffs. Anything that we code during the game can be watched on the iPad immediately afterwards.”

According to Schranz, the idea to enhance the program was actually suggested by Sabres captain Jason Pominville in his end-of-season meeting with the coaching staff. The team was already getting pre-scout materials on the day of a game, but Pominville wondered if there was a way for the players to have everything in their hands the night before.

“We started thinking ‘how can we get them the pre-scout stuff if they’re not here?’ So we began researching the different companies that were out there to find the one we could work best with,” says Schranz. “What this gives us the ability to do is to send the pre-scout materials and game plan to the players the night before a game via the app. Now when they come into the game day meeting, they are already prepared for that team because they’ve had a night to review all the materials on their iPad. They are essentially studying for the next game, and can ask questions at the morning game day meeting if something is unclear to them.”

Schranz continues to work with Kyle Kiebzak (the Sabres’ Hockey Technologies Manager) to develop the program and work out any bugs along the way. He believes the sky is the limit with what the program will be able to do in both the NHL and AHL going foward, and how it can benefit every player in the organization.

“We can get as complicated or as simple as we want. For the time being (in Rochester) we’re just trying to keep it as simple as possible. One of the things we’ve done in the past is we’ve tried to do things that are way more complicated than they needed to be. There’s a tendency to lose players when you do that. Right now it’s as simple as ‘You want to watch blocked shots? There’s your video.’ As we go along, we’d like to add more coding elements to break things down even more specifically.”

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