NHL teams seek ‘somewhat normal’ atmosphere in home away from home

A large Canadian flag is passed around the Saddledome before the start of Colorado Avalanche vs the Calgary Flames first period NHL playoff action in Calgary, Saturday, April 13, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Just before the Calgary Flames open their five-game qualifying series with the Winnipeg Jets, the lads in red will be welcomed to the ice at Rogers Place by an enthusiastic introduction from Saddledome stadium announcer, Beesley.

With Flames organist Willy Joosen providing the backdrop, Canadian country music star George Canyon will subsequently belt out the national anthem, as he has the past six years in Calgary.

None of the three Saddledome staples will actually be in Edmonton, as the trio recorded their respective parts from home studios during the NHL’s pause.

While “O Canada” is played, there will obviously be no interruption from Jets fans, who’ve carved out a clever little niche by screaming “True North” during that part of every Canadian anthem around the league.

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After all, there will be no fans in the building.

So why do it?

“The NHL’s ultimate goal is to create an environment for the players that is somewhat normal,” explained Steve Edgar, manager of game presentation for the Flames’ parent company.

“The NHL has been in close contact with the clubs on the game presentation side and they basically gave us a one-sheeter on the content they’d like to get from the home team. Like everything in this COVID world, it’s pretty unchartered (sic) waters.”

Even though games are all being played in either Edmonton or Toronto, every matchup will have a designated home team (Flames for the first two, and Jets for the second two), and the goal is for the host to enjoy as many nuances from its own building as possible.

“We’ve sent them our goal song (AC/DC’s “TNT”), win song (Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”), the warmup playlist, warmup videos, video for time outs, organ music – things that are unique for each team that are transferable,” Edgar said before being asked if the Dome’s famous fire bursts will be ignited after goals.

“Some things can’t be transferred — we can’t ship the fireballs to Edmonton.”

They can’t ship Harvey the Hound there either, meaning any appearances from the Flames mascot will be relegated to videos shown on the Jumbotron.

The task for game night producers in Edmonton will be to execute game productions as close to Edgar’s instructions as possible.

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That means Johnny Gaudreau goals will be followed by Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Sam Bennett snipes punctuated by Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.”

Not everyone has a goal song, but all the players are accustomed to the sights, sounds and flow Edgar has provided as a backdrop for many years.

Without fans in the stands to provide the ultimate – and most important – backdrop, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not it will work.

But it’s worth trying, especially if it adds a tiny semblance of normalcy for TV viewers as well.

In games three and four, the sights and sounds from Winnipeg’s Bell MTS Place will ring out as a more familiar production for Jets fans.

To help add to the authenticity and emotion of the content, the Flames reached out to season ticket holders with an invitation to submit everything from “Go Flames Go” chants to various goal celebrations.

“I give our fans tons of credit – some of them were very creative,” Edgar said.

“It has certainly been fun to see our fans’ responses and how excited they are to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I had one mother call me and tell me how much it meant for her autistic son to be able to put together a video. That sort of connection is really what being a fan is all about.”

The Flames got a tiny taste of what it might sound and look like Sunday night during their intra-squad game, which included Beesley’s introduction and goal announcements echoing through the empty rink.

“I know the guys enjoyed it,” interim coach Geoff Ward said with a grin.

“The great thing about Beesley being involved is that this is exactly what we’re going to see at the hub. It’s going to be exactly like it was (Sunday) night. It gives us a chance to get used to it.”

That was news to most of the players, including Cam Talbot.

“I had no idea about any of that until you said it,” the Flames goalie said of the home comforts they’ll be privy to for select games in Edmonton.

“I’ve never played a hockey game in front of an empty building. It’s all very abnormal. We practice in one and you can hear everything in there – a puck goes off my pad and it echoes.

“It’s going to be weird – the fans are what make the game that much more exciting. It’s going to be hard to recreate normalcy even if you have the organist and anthem singer.”

Even Canyon admitted it was odd recording “O Canada” in his basement studio, saddened by the inability to be part of the live action, with the roar of the crowd encouraging big hits, rousing comebacks and maybe even the odd goalie fight.

“I don’t think that will be the case again, in the playoffs,” Talbot, who famously took on Edmonton’s towering Mike Smith earlier this year, said with a laugh. “If so, I’ll pick someone smaller this time.”

As much as the game day and stadium accoutrements are designed for the players to feel at home, they should also resonate with TV viewers who will be able to hear plenty of familiar sounds in the broadcast’s background.

“The hockey fan in me is fascinated to find out,” Edgar said of how it will all look and sound on TV.

“On a normal NHL broadcast you can still hear the music and PA announcer. Who knows, they might show more on TV. It will be interesting to see.”

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