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NHL puts 100 years of hockey history into SAP HANA database

The National Hockey League is using the SAP HANA database on HANA Enterprise Cloud to power a statistics site that encompasses the entire league history.

As the National Hockey League gets set to crown either the Pittsburgh Penguins or Nashville Predators as the 2017...

Stanley Cup champions, NHL fans had their own say in selecting the greatest team in the NHL's 100-year history.

Using an interactive application on the NHL website, fans could call up all manner of statistics about previous Stanley Cup champions, comparing and contrasting vital stats, like winning percentage and the differential between goals scored and goals allowed.

All of this required an enormous amount of data and analysis, and the digital MVP for the NHL is the SAP HANA database, which forms the technology foundation for the NHL's stats section and applications.

In fact, the NHL is so keen on making its statistics a part of the fan experience that it's making all league statistics available on its various digital platforms. That's all the statistics in the league's 100-year existence, which means every goal, assist, save, penalty minute and more from every game the league has ever played will be available for search and analysis.

Taking advantage of HANA's speed and power

To make this possible, the NHL has for the last three years built a stats database on SAP HANA, and it has started to introduce interactive applications that take advantage of the data storage capacity and processing speed the SAP HANA database allows. The NHL runs HANA on SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud (HEC) on a private cloud hosted by SAP's data center.

"We've been running the SAP HANA database on HEC for three years, and what's nice about this third year is it coincides with NHL's centennial-year celebration," said Chris Foster, the NHL's director of digital business development. "It allows us to take advantage of the available technologies to bring alive aspects of the centennial that we want to highlight and tell stories for our fans, especially through the prism of statistics."

The NHL has been working with SAP on several projects on the technical side and through content creation on various platforms. This is all an effort to make the league's history come alive for fans, Foster said.

This is the culmination of a project that began six years ago, when the NHL started to digitize all of the game sheets that it had stored in file cabinets in the league's offices.

Developed in SAP HANA, the NHL statistics section includes a number of ways for fans to search for stats across the entire league history.
Developed in SAP HANA, the NHL statistics section includes a number of ways for fans to search for stats across the entire league history.

One hundred years of league stats available

"In April, we rolled out the historic playoff stats as part of the league's centennial, which is phase one of the stats rollout. And the bigger rollout will start in September 2017, when the full regular season stats become available," Foster said. "We worked with SAP on integrating the back end of our stats and archiving all official league stats on the SAP HANA database and working with SAP on the architecture of how the system was modeled for that."

The two-year process of building on the HANA database has resulted in a stats section that allows users to find virtually any information they want, or make any comparison of team or player performance that they can think of, Foster explained. 

"This can be for fans, broadcasters, writers, club personnel. Now, they can go back through our entire history and slice and dice the data however they want it," he said. "If they want to compare and contrast game-level stats between Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard compared to Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, now they have the ability to do that. And [they can] do it with a return for whatever customized search you want to do; the results show up within a second. The processing speed behind the HANA database is amazing."

The NHL statistics section was designed to enhance the fans' experience with easy searching and clear graphic design.
The NHL statistics section was designed to enhance the fans' experience with easy searching and clear graphic design.

Database preparation is vital

It was difficult and challenging to digitize much of the old data from the original game sheets -- mainly because many were handwritten and up to 100 years old -- but Foster said the real work lay in preparing the database for the applications and types of searches that were needed.

"Getting the actual data into the HANA was relatively straightforward, and a lot of the reason why was because of the work that was done two or three years ago," he said. "Preparing the database was vital -- how the data tables were laid out and the architecture behind it. This is where the SAP consultants were vital to us; for example, how do we set up these data tables to have this flexibility to be able to add new data sets and it would work seamlessly?"

HANA's speed and processing power are at the heart of the NHL's statistics section, but there's more to it than that to make the project work, agreed Dan Fleetwood, SAP's vice president of global sponsorships, whose team worked with the NHL.

"[HANA] is a piece of the stack, and there's a lot of dependencies there -- the hardware, the processors, the data models and the data cleanliness, and all those other things are all what we worked very closely with the NHL on to put together," Fleetwood said. "Yes, it's the power of the HANA in-memory database and the speed that that provides to allow you to filter, dig, and drill into the specifics of comparisons and the minutia very rapidly, but there's a lot behind that. It's not just the HANA database; it's all these other pieces that contribute to that."

Teamwork is the key

Designing a front end that would work well and appeal to hockey fans was a key consideration, and the SAP professional services team worked closely with the NHL team to get it right, according to Fleetwood.  

"Our design team spent a ton of time with the league, the league editors, and their content and editorial teams," he said. "They spent a ton of time with testing and went out to different arenas and polled fans, so there was a lot of discovery and a lot of research that went into what fans were looking for."

No detail was too small for the user experience, Fleetwood explained. For example, hockey players wear helmets during games, so all but the biggest stars, like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, remain fairly anonymous. So, the NHL made it a point to include large, clean headshots of all the league's players on the site, so fans could identify with them more.

Although the NHL application was specific to hockey fans who have a deep interest in the history of the league, there are lessons that any business can learn about digitizing its data, according to Fleetwood.

A large corporation like Exxon Mobil may have the same needs to make large and complex amounts of data available to different groups in the company. The same methodology the NHL and SAP used to identify, collect, consolidate, synthesize data and make it accessible applies to any organization.

"We sat with the editorial staff and the user interface guys and went out to the fans, and you're going to do that same thing in an oil and gas company," Fleetwood said.

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