The puck is the essential piece of any hockey game, yet it is largely invisible to most television viewers because of its tiny size.
All that could change thanks to Fox, the American hockey rights holder, which unveils "FoxTrax," a computer-enhanced puck on tomorrow's NHL All-Star Game telecast from Boston (Channel 45, 8 p.m.).
The enhancement, which makes the puck glow during regular play and emits a comet trail for faster velocities, is one of the biggest technological advances to come to sports recently.
"We think it's pretty impressive. We like it," said an understated David Hill, president of Fox Sports.
With the permission of the NHL, Fox inserted a battery-powered circuit board with a series of 20 infrared emitters into the 50 pucks that will be used for tomorrow's game, along with sensors that have been placed around and above the ice.
For tomorrow night, the high center-ice camera and two infrared sensing cameras will be fitted with a special device that will feed information to computers, which add the blue and white glow, the red vapor trail for shots of 75 mph and higher and the graphics that will give the speed on the screen.
Each puck's battery lasts for about 10 minutes of ice time, and each puck weighs within one-hundredth of a gram of a regular puck. The delay between what happens at the FleetCenter and what you see at home is between one-sixth and one-third of a second, according to Fox officials.
The network has been working on this project for nine months. Though Hill would not disclose the financial investment, industry sources say Fox has put about $2 million into "FoxTrax," with the expectation that it will be a part of its lead telecast during its six-game regular-season package and Stanley Cup playoff schedule.
"This is for the non-aligned hockey viewer, someone who has tried it in the past, but had trouble following it," said Hill. "By showing them what the game is all about, more and more people will come to it."
By the way, ESPN plans a major presence at tonight's All-Star Friday events, including a legends game and skills competition, with fastest shot, accuracy and puck-control relay contests, starting at 7:30 p.m. ESPN2 will take "NHL2Night" to Boston for a review of the first half of the season at 11 tonight, and a wrap-up of the game at 11:30 tomorrow night.
The NBA way
The weekly schedule of NBC's NBA telecasts returns Sunday with a doubleheader: Detroit at Chicago at noon, followed by Orlando at Houston at 2:30 p.m., both on Channel 11.
Speaking of the NBA, and we were, Robyn Marks will have an extended interview with Vin Baker of the Milwaukee Bucks during tonight's "SportsRap" on WEAA (88.9 FM) at 7 p.m. as a part of her "One on One" series. Among the topics to be covered are Baker's 10-year contract, his emergence from small school Hartford to All-Star status and his relationship with teammate Glenn Robinson.
Hoops, distaff style
Sunday's nationally televised match between the Maryland and North Carolina women's basketball teams (Home Team Sports, 7 p.m.) looks heavily skewed toward the Tar Heels, who share the lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But Nancy Lieberman-Cline, a hoops legend in her days at Old Dominion, says the Terps are capable of getting the kind of upset that could propel them through the rest of the ACC schedule.
"A win like that can take away some of those negative thoughts they [Terps] might be having," said Lieberman-Cline.
Other women's games of note this weekend include Vanderbilt-Tennessee tonight (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m.) and Georgia-Penn State tomorrow (Channel 13, 2 p.m.).
End of the trail
The college football season comes to a merciful end with a pair of all-star games from warm climes.
Tomorrow's Senior Bowl (2 p.m.) pits the North against the South from Mobile, Ala., and TBS is sparing no expense, with its NFL announcing team of Verne Lundquist, Pat Haden, Kevin Kiley, Vince Cellini, Mark May and Warren Moon calling the game.
On Sunday, ESPN's Hula Bowl coverage (8 p.m.) features the amusing gimmick of having two of its analysts, Mike Gottfried and Lee Corso, coaching the two teams, East and West.