The age of ‘new school’ hockey has arrived: Montreal Canadiens Assistant Coach, Kirk Muller, on bringing tech to the ice

Fresh off a welcome streak of home games, we caught Kirk Muller just before he took off for yet another road trip. We talked to him about AI, technology in sports, and how the game of hockey has changed more in the past five years than it did in the past five decades before that. 

Kirk brings a fresh perspective to Artificial Intelligence in hockey, having played in the NHL for 19 seasons before becoming a coach. In that time, Kirk has witnessed the game — and players — evolve. From reimagined approaches to dryland training to more thoughtful eating habits and optimized equipment, the Good Ol’ Hockey Game has a new manual on health and wellness.

But, beyond those changes, we were eager to know: has AI made its way to the coaches office?

STRADIGI AI: When it comes to Artificial Intelligence, some fear that it will negatively impact our everyday lives — including diehard hockey fans! What do you have to say to hockey fans about AI’s contributions to the game and fan experience?  

KIRK MULLER: Like many industries that AI is revolutionizing, where the real impact will be seen is in greater efficiency for processing and analyzing the huge amounts of data coaches now have access to. Ask anyone, and they will tell you that the hockey world has changed: teaching and coaching is done through technology and video, so our time off the ice is spent evaluating ourselves, our competitors, and potential draft picks. But this takes a ton of time.

AI can detect patterns at a rapid pace, which means we can spend less time looking at content and more time working one-on-one with our players. Surprisingly, increased adoption of AI will give us more time for human-centric coaching. Less time in the office and more time on the rink is great for everyone.

SA: There’s no denying that technology has changed way the game is played, from carbon-graphite sticks to fiberglass masks. Off the ice, what new technologies are coaches bringing into their strategic planning?

KM: Video is the most prominent teaching tool for coaches today — and this has a lot to do with the generation of kids we are coaching today. Some of the players on our team haven’t known a world without internet, so we have had to revolutionize the way they teach off the ice. The players are increasingly learning in a visual way from an early age, and we’re always adapting to fit their needs.

On the flip side, technology also gives players the opportunity to rewatch and analyze plays independently. A player will skate off the ice, and pick up an iPad to rewatch their last shift and evaluate themselves. They’ll also spend time on the road and in the dressing room looking at their stats per shift to assess their performance. Learning and performance assessment is a constant part of what we do, and technology makes this possible from 35,000 feet, the bench, the dressing room, and at home. 

SA: Theoretically, one single hockey game could give you millions of data points to analyze your performance and examine your competition. Would you be sifting through this information personally?

KM: We actually have two people on staff who are full-time video coaches. They watch our players and other teams to help support the coaching process. Before, coaches acted on instinct and eyes, but now, we have data to either support our positions or help us dig a little deeper. The process of really assessing the decisions you are making with data is relatively new, and it’s absolutely essential for any coach who wants to succeed, regardless of the sport.

SA: What role do you see AI playing in hockey in the future? Will there ever be a point where the technology goes “too far”?

KM: The NHL is an exceptionally competitive market now. Teams are always looking for a new way to advance themselves, and AI will expedite this process significantly. Everything is changing at a faster speed, and AI is only getting more accurate with its analyzations over time. Right now, there is a disconnect between the world of data and the world of hockey: sometimes, the terminology doesn’t quite translate, and the analysis might not consider the state of the team as a whole; in other words, the more “human” components that only coaches can recognize. Someone who is able to connect these dots will definitely be a new role within hockey organizations soon.

As humans, we have the power to make AI work for us in a meaningful way. In the world of hockey, so long as AI is helping us be more efficient with our time to play the game we love with more success, then it deserves to have a place.

SA: Do you think technology-fueled coaching will eventually make its way to all levels of the game?

Absolutely. Much like large-scale businesses, organizations are no longer just competing with the people or teams around them — it’s on a global scale. We’re seeing the sport of hockey evolve across the world because access to education on how to increase performance has become more mainstream, all thanks to technology. Just as nutrition and fitness regimes around hockey have evolved significantly, I predict our ability to effectively use coaching time on-ice and off-ice will too. This leads to more balance in the lives for players and coaches, higher performing athletes, and a more entertaining game for fans.

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