Nearly five months after the NHL hit pause on the 2019-20 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we can finally say these three magical words:
Hockey. Is. Back.
While the NHL’s long-awaited return will bring a big sense of normalcy for those who play, watch, and cover the game, it’ll also bring some (temporary) changes to the way people do all those things.
When the puck drops Tuesday for exhibition games and on Saturday for the official start of play, it’ll usher in this strange new era of bubble hockey that’s about to become our new normal – for now, anyway.
The hockey returning to our screens this summer will feature all the intensity and competition we’re used to seeing from franchises chasing down the Stanley Cup each spring, but the games will look and sound a little different from what we’re used to.
Empty arenas will be dressed up for prime time, setting a unique stage for each game – a setup described as outdoor game meets American Ninja Warrior – in an effort to cover sections of vacant seats. Live cheers, jeers, and chants will be replaced by augmented crowd noise funneled into the broadcast by a technical production crew. Player interviews will be done not just on camera but via camera, as social distancing has done away with in-person one-on-ones. And new perspectives will be offered by a dozen new camera angles to give fans at home extra access to an arena entirely closed to the public.
All this in an effort to both recreate the comforts of what watching hockey means to so many fans at home, as well as to push the envelope of what broadcasters can do.
— NHL (@NHL) July 26, 2020
The result is what will hopefully be a delicate mix of the two.
“You want some of the traditional stuff but you also want to do things a little bit differently. And it will be – hockey’s going to look different. It’s going to sound different,” says vice president of Sportsnet and NHL Production, Rob Corte, who’s been busy preparing for hockey’s return since the league pressed pause on March 12. “There’s going to be no fan shots. If you go back and watch any game in the past, the amount of fan interaction put into the game is huge. That’s gone. So, there are new camera angles. There are more cameras. There’s stuff being done — sets, audio, all that other stuff, is different … But at the end of the day, it’s the game.”
Take that challenge, and multiple it by up to six times per day throughout the qualifying round as the league whittles 16 play-in teams down to eight and determines the seeding of the other eight. That hockey’s return coincides with two other major leagues makes things all the more complex in the (newly-social-distanced) control rooms.
When you’re dealing with two great unpredictables – pro sports and a pandemic – there are bound to be adjustments made along the way.
“The reality is, the way the broadcasts start compared to how they’re going to finish in the Stanley Cup Final, there’s going to be a lot of change and a lot of growth,” says Corte of how hockey’s viewing experience will evolve over the next few months. “The approach is kind of, we’ll crawl, then we’ll walk, then we’ll run. So, as the tournament moves on and the playoffs go on, you’re going to see more and more things get added as we have a chance to experiment and find out ‘this is working, this isn’t working.”
Before the puck drops on the return of hockey, here’s a breakdown of what viewers can expect:
All viewers will be watching the same “world feed” of every game.
Each NHL hub city will have one technical crew onsite in the bubble to produce what’s known as a “world feed” for every game played in that arena. The goal of a world feed is to provide full, completely neutral coverage of all the game action from puck drop to the final buzzer. (It’s also the safest way to produce a game, as it lessens the number of production crews onsite and allows for social distancing.)
Sportsnet and NBC, the NHL’s official rights holders in Canada and the U.S. respectively, are responsible for providing the world feeds in close collaboration with the NHL – Sportsnet out west in Edmonton, and NBC in the East in Toronto.
“The best way to say it is, the line cut of the game, which includes all the replays and the [game] sound – sticks, pucks, microphones around the rink, the augmented crowd noise – that’s the same for everybody,” says Corte.
From there, the world feed is then delivered directly into the control rooms of NHL broadcast partners on both sides of the border, from Sportsnet’s control rooms in Toronto to NBC’s headquarters south of the border, and the many local network affiliates in NHL markets in the U.S. (such as NESN or MSG, for example).
Each network can then plugs in their own elements – commentators, score bugs, graphics, music, and intermission panels – that make the broadcast come together for their audience.
All Canadian teams’ games will be called and produced by Sportsnet.
Sportsnet’s Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson will be at the rink and on the call for all Toronto (vs. Columbus) and Montreal (vs. Pittsburgh) games in Scotiabank Arena, while the network’s new duo of Chris Cuthbert and Louie DeBrusk will voice all the Canadian team action at Rogers Place in Edmonton – Flames vs. Jets, Oilers vs. Blackhawks, Canucks vs. Wild.
The way the jam-packed schedule of games is laid out means these on-air crews could be pulling two-a-days throughout the qualifying round. (As is the case every year, series assignments will be re-assigned as we move forward into Round 1 and beyond.)
No fans means more flexibility for camera placements.
Every network, including Sportsnet, will also have access to their own unilateral camera that’s controlled by an operator onsite with a direct line of communication with his or her network’s control room. This camera is used only between whistles when play is dead, in order to tailor a network’s own broadcast to their storytelling needs.
“So, if on a whistle we want to tell a story about Connor McDavid, our camera will just stay with Connor McDavid and when the whistle happens, we’ll cut off the world feed and go to the camera on Connor McDavid, we’ll tell the Connor McDavid story however we want to tell it – whether it’s pictures of him, a full-page graphic, a lower-third graphic – and then we will cut back to the world feed for game coverage,” explains Corte.
Without fans in the stands, there’s also room to experiment with different camera angles. The league announced it’s introducing a dozen new cameras for a total of 32 in each arena, including one that can be positioned directly over centre ice known as a JitaCam.
More microphones will provide more sweet sounds of hockey.
Skates carving the ice, pucks on sticks, the ping! of a shot off the cross-bar. The NHL is amplifying that experience even more by placing more microphones around the rink to pick up the sounds of the game.
(Of course, there’s also the risk that those microphone will pick up… other sounds of the game. A five-second tape delay will allow a league representative to screen the sound for any, uh, ‘choice words’ before they come over your speakers at home.)
Crowd noise will be added to simulate the real thing.
In an effort to recreate a typical viewing experience, augmented crowd noise will be funnelled into the world feed. Unlike in MLB, which is feeding their crowd noise directly into stadiums, the NHL’s sound will be added into the broadcast feed which means the players won’t hear it.
Adding crowd noise isn’t about creating a unique viewing experience but rather bringing back the familiarity of the one we’ve grown so accustomed to.
“If we’re adding this augmented [crowd noise], the reality is that it gets closer and closer to what a regular broadcast is. Because now you have the rink sounds, you have crowd sounds, you have music. It becomes very, very similar to what a normal game will be,” says Corte.
The NHL has been working with EA Sports to cultivate this sound, which will be tailored to specific teams and situations to create a home-team atmosphere for all clubs.
“If this thing works, the Leafs could be on a power play and some crowd noise could be pumped in with a ‘Go Leafs Go!’ chant,” suggests Corte. “But it all has to be done properly, it all has to be subtle. It can’t be too in-your-face because it’s not authentic crowd noise. It’s there to help augment the broadcast but it’s not there to take over the broadcast. So, we’re going to be very careful with it.”
This, too, is something that will likely change over the course of the return-to-play and throughout the playoffs. Because it’s new, there might be a feeling-out phase with it.
“The wild card is how this crowd noise works and if it’s something we’ll continue throughout, and then how pronounced all the on-ice sounds are,” he explains. “Because obviously the sticks, the skates, the pucks, they should be a little bit louder. The world feed [production] truck has the ability to control the levels and how those sounds are … So there is room to play with it, and to play with the levels.”
Every team’s the home team… sort of.
While players won’t hear the augmented crowd noise, there will still be plenty of sound in the arena itself to make them feel at home.
There will be PA announcer, like normal, with loud music during stoppages and other in-game elements designed to bring the sounds of each team’s home rink into the hub. Things like team-specific goal horns and signature goal songs are just some of the personal touches being brought in.
Studio panels will look a little different, too.
Sportsnet’s Hockey Central and Hockey Night in Canada panels are returning with the games, but they’ll look different too. Social distancing means you can’t have the typical four-person panel we usually see on Saturday nights – instead, they’ll be spaced out in different parts of the studio. Others will be brought in remotely, broadcasting from their homes. It’ll no doubt be an adjustment for all involved.
“Everything we normally do, you just can’t really do it anymore – even just going and putting a mic on somebody,” Corte says. “Even our commentators in the studio. We don’t have makeup artists anymore, because you can’t have people touching other peoples’ faces, so they have to do their own makeup. So all the little things like that are new nuances that have to be factored in when you do television. Things that we took for granted, you can’t do them anymore.”
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) July 27, 2020
Intermission and post-game interviews with players won’t look the same either, and will likely be conducted via camera as reporters aren’t allowed any in-person contact with NHL players or staff.
Puck and player tracking technology has been put on hold.
Earlier this season, the NHL announced it would debut its new puck and player tracking in the playoffs, but that’s no longer the case. The tracking technology would require each player to be individually chipped – something that’s just not safe in our current social-distancing world.
There are still some things to be determined.
Game delays – either due to triple overtime or the sanitizing process requiring a little more time – could be possible. So, too, could changes to audio and camera angles that are working well or not. And, above all else, the health of all involved will be paramount.
This has never been done before, and therefore will require extra caution and compassion for all.
“It’s a big puzzle to put together, but also the pieces are always moving,” says Corte.
But it’s also an incredibly exciting time for everyone who’s been pining for hockey since the day it left.
“This thing is going to morph and get better and bigger as the Stanley Cup Playoffs go on.”