A new NHL Seattle-sponsored speaker series at the Pacific Science Center will take a detailed look at hockey from a science-based perspective. Using science to attract future NHL fans isn't new and certainly can't hurt the Seattle franchise as it continues its buildup to a 2021 launch.

Share story

Inside the NHL

Using science to explain hockey to uninitiated U.S. sports fans is an idea about as old as KeyArena itself.

Ever since Chicago Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull supposedly was clocked with a 118.3 mph slap shot during a velocity test written up by Popular Mechanics magazine in 1968, luring new American hockey patrons by impressing them with the science behind the game has become a thing. And now, as the NHL pushes forward with plans for new player-and-puck-tracking data next season in hopes of, among other things, making television broadcasts more interesting, a more local initiative involving hockey and science began last week.

NHL Seattle and the Oak View Group (OVG) have partnered with the Pacific Science Center on a speaker series of public events on the science behind hockey and some of the other live entertainment to be offered at a remodeled KeyArena.

The series, dubbed “The Science of Sports & Entertainment” began Tuesday with a session on the architectural and engineering feats surrounding the $850 million KeyArena renovation, with developer OVG supplying a handful of project executives to explain details to a crowd of about 150 attendees.

“Curiosity, discovery, experimentation and critical thinking – those are essential for science and innovation,’’ Will Daugherty, president and CEO of the science center, told the crowd. “They’re also critical to great sporting performances, great athletic performances and great theater, great dance.’’

Daugherty hopes future sessions of the bimonthly series, which will delve more into the sport of hockey — including a look at shot velocity and the geometry of how a puck glides across the ice — raise a greater appreciation of the game.

NHL Seattle and OVG plan to open a season-ticket and suites presentation center within the science center building, so part of sponsoring the series is simply being a good neighbor and drawing some customers there during otherwise slow weekday nights. But it’s also in NHL Seattle and OVG’s best interest to drum up as much hockey support as possible before a new team hits the ice at KeyArena in October 2021.

One of the biggest NHL critiques out there is that the games are more entertaining when seen live than on TV. Part of that is hockey’s speed, which can be difficult for new fans to follow on a limited field of vision TV picture if they didn’t grow up watching NHL games.

Few things will turn potential hockey fans off quicker than watching what seems to be a chaotic mass of players whizzing by at 30 mph, crashing in to each other and swatting away at a rubber disc viewers at home can barely see. Fox Sports briefly attempted an infamous “glow puck” blue tracer on late-1990s game broadcasts to help viewers better follow the puck, but that just seemed to irritate hockey purists and newcomers alike.

What that failed tracer technology didn’t do was actually explain to fans what they were watching. And sometimes, a little added information goes a long way.

For instance, everybody suspected NHL players delivered hard hits. But then Montreal Canadiens defenseman Larry Robinson threw a hip check on Gary Dornhoefer of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 2 of the 1976 Stanley Cup Final that actually dislodged the arena’s sideboards.

Those watching on TV that night will likely never forget how a quick science lesson — using the boards as a prop — gave them a new appreciation of how the force of a blow delivered by a 6-foot-4, 225-pound NHL defender could resemble that of a car hitting a wall. No statistical data needed.

Of course, the science center likely won’t line up many volunteers willing to be crushed Robinson-style and left spitting up blood for days like Dornhoefer. But 43 years after Robinson’s hit, we’re now technologically advanced enough to deliver statistical data on bodychecks in ever-creative and entertaining ways.

It depends on how far NHL Seattle and the Pacific Science Center are willing to go.

During the initial event last week, NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke talked up the KeyArena remodel as the equivalent of constructing an entirely new building under the existing roof. Project architects and engineers reinforced that point with a handful of new artist renderings that provided the audience a striking, detailed look at the level of work actually taking place below ground.

Project executive Shaun Mason of the CAA ICON architectural firm likened the arena to “an iceberg’’ where the visible portion is a fraction of the overall venue. To nearly double the arena’s footprint from 411,000 square feet to more than 800,000, he explained, the project is digging down an extra 15 feet below ground and then digging out well beyond the venue’s existing walls.

Lead project designer Geoff Cheong of Populous discussed the challenges of air circulation given the arena’s new loading dock will now be 53 feet below grade while lead engineer Jeff Sawarynski talked about installing “snorkels’’ on the arena’s roof to allow air to flow in and out and keep hockey fans comfortable. Audience members were told how the arena’s roof is to be suspended from the air by cranes and cables to keep it in place when the digging occurs.

So, there should be interesting tidbits to chew over once the sessions get down to scientifically dissecting hockey.

Daugherty, an Atlanta native, recalled once seeing rookie Wayne Gretzky score four goals on former Team USA “Miracle on Ice” Olympic team goalie Jim Craig when the netminder joined his hometown Flames late in the 1979-80 season. The Flames relocated to Calgary the following season, but Daugherty said he’s confident the Seattle public will be more supportive of the NHL than Atlanta was and hopes to play a role in building that.

And if science helps, why not use it? Professional hockey left Seattle more than 40 years ago and, local junior teams notwithstanding, it’s going to take newcomers to the sport willing to spend big money on tickets and cable-TV package subscriptions to keep the NHL viable here long term.

The NHL clearly thinks all the real-time tracking data it will start collecting and releasing for TV and sports-gaming partners next season — including shot velocities, ice time logged and situational percentages — will lead to increased interest in its product. So, locally, if even a handful of fans go home from these NHL Seattle-sponsored science center sessions willing to watch a hockey game on TV and buy season tickets to KeyArena down the road, the speaker series will have paid for itself.