FoxTrax, sometimes referred to as Glow Puck, was a digital on-screen graphic and electromagnetic transmitting hockey puck that was used in National Hockey League games aired on Fox in the United States from 1996 to 1998. The puck and its computer system was implemented to help viewers visually follow the puck during games, but was discontinued after two years due to poor reception.
In 1994, Fox won a contract to broadcast NHL games in the United States. David Hill, the head of Fox Sports at the time, believed that if viewers could easily follow the puck, the game would seem less confusing to newcomers, and hence become more appealing to a broader audience. Hill pitched the idea to Rupert Murdoch, who approved the development of FoxTrax under electrical engineer Stan Honey. The FoxTrax puck was first used during the 1996 NHL All-Star Game. It was last used during the first game of the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals. Fox was scheduled to televise Games 5 and 7, but the series ended in four games. In August 1998, the NHL broadcast rights went to ABC, and FoxTrax was not brought back for the final season.
Fox has since used "FoxTrax" as a branding for other on-screen tracking graphics in other sports properties, such as a virtual strike zone during baseball games, and statistics displays during NASCAR events. They are related to the puck in name only.
Construction and operation
To create the FoxTrax puck, a standard NHL puck was cut in half, and a tiny circuit board with a battery was placed inside. The circuit board contained a shock sensor and infrared emitters that were located on the flat surfaces and perimeter of the puck. The enhanced puck was engineered to have the same weight, balance, and rebound as the original puck. The two halves were then bonded with a proprietary epoxy compound and the puck could be used for gameplay. The FoxTrax was developed with assistance from News Corp's Etak navigation subsidiary. While the batteries were designed to last for 30 minutes, and some were successfully used in tests for more than 60 minutes, a typical puck lasted only about 10 minutes on the ice. For that reason, 30 FoxTrax pucks were provided for each game. The puck was activated when it was dropped by the ref or struck by a hockey stick.
During a Fox NHL broadcast, the puck emitted infrared pulses that were detected by both the 20 pulse detectors and the 10 modified IR cameras that were located in the rafters. The shuttering of the IR cameras was synchronized to the pulses. Each infrared camera had an associated 66 MHz Intel 80486 computer to process the video locally and transmit the coordinates of candidate targets to the "Puck Truck" (a 55' production trailer). The truck contained computers that superimposed computer graphics on the puck coordinates, which could be seen by viewers at home.
The visual result was a bluish glow around the puck. Unfortunately, the blue color did not show up very well against the white of the rink. Passes were indicated with the bluish glow plus a comet tail indicating its path. When the puck moved faster than 70 miles per hour, a red comet tail was added.
Despite rumors that Fox employees would sometimes go into the stands to retrieve a puck that left the playing area, the pucks were not re-usable. Like any other puck that left the ice, the FoxTrax pucks often became souvenirs.
There was a divided response to the implementation of the FoxTrax puck. Viewers new or unfamiliar with the sport enjoyed the feature, since they could follow the game more easily; a Fox Sports survey found that 7 out of 10 respondents liked the new puck. World News Tonight did a story on the innovation, in which ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, himself a native Canadian, claimed to receive significant favorable feedback from viewers on the technology, but cautioning that although he liked it, that "I don't think Canadians are going to like it as much as Americans are."
However, there was a strong backlash among hockey purists, argued that the video graphics were a distraction and turned hockey into a video game. Despite the puck having passed rigorous tests by the NHL to qualify as an official puck, matching the non-enhanced puck in every material way, some players claimed the enhanced puck had more rebound, and were frustrated that the pricey pucks were not available for practice.
Nielsen Ratings for the NHL on Fox began declining in 1996, falling from a regular-season peak average of 2.1 in 1996 to 1.4 for 1998. The NHL would not recover from the slump until the NHL Winter Classic debuted in 2008.
The concept was later parodied in a Molson Canadian beer advertisement where an American marketer is attempting to sell the idea to a boardroom full of Canadian executives. As he is forcibly ejected from the room, a blue comet trail follows him (i.e. "they passed").
Canadian Folk/Comedy trio The Arrogant Worms satirized the glow puck in their song "Proud to be Canadian" with the line "We don't need no microchip inside our hockey pucks," and again in their song 'Me Like Hockey' with the line "But Yankees they win the World Cup, me think they cheat, use glowy puck."
Sportswriter Greg Wyshynski named it the second-worst idea in North American sports history, trailing only the infamous Ten Cent Beer Night promotion that baseball's Cleveland Indians threw in 1974, in his book Glow Pucks and Ten-Cent Beer.
In 2002, an informal poll by ESPN solicited opinions from readers on the worst innovations in sports history, without specifying choices in advance. The Fox glow puck came in 6th place, just behind free agency.
- "Tracking the Ice Hockey Puck - FoxTrax (Glow Puck)". Engineering and Technology History Wiki. Retrieved 2016-01-26.
- Keri, Jonah (2006-11-30). "Gear through the years". ESPN. Retrieved 2008-03-20.
- ABC World News Tonight, April 19, 1996
- This was reiterated in Fox Sports' coverage of the 1996 All-Star Game, in which Jennings was interviewed by the NHL on Fox announcers.
- Rick Cavallaro. "First-Hand:Recollections of the development of the FoxTrax hockey puck tracking system". IEEE Global History Network. Retrieved 2013-10-28.
- "Worst sports innovations". 2002-07-17. Retrieved 2013-10-23.