The smell of popcorn won’t be wafting through the building, the Kiss Cam won’t be delighting viewers and the Coffee-Cup shuffle won’t be on the Jumbotron to prompt wagering between the dozen or two media folk in-house.
Try as the Saddledome’s game production crew might to keep things as normal as possible for Saturday night’s home opener, there are a few staples that won’t make the cut in an empty arena.
Flames will still billow from the rafters after home team snipes, the goal horn and song remain the same and stadium announcer Beesley will provide the pipes to announce every scorer, penalty and last minute of play.
Country star George Canyon will also be live, in-house Saturday to sing the national anthem, recordings of organist Willy Joosen will be sprinkled between whistles and the ice-cleaning crew will continue to shovel during TV timeouts.
However, the job of representing 18,000 voices rests with two men - Travis Girard and Austin Friesen.
The two Flames’ game night staffers will sit in Section 218 at mid-ice, behind the camera stand, with an eye on keeping their fingers on the pulse of crowd reactions.
They’ll do so with the aid of a synthetic audio system provided by the league, complete with crowd noise courtesy of EA Sports.
With the appropriately timed push of a button, their task is to punctuate every hit, near-miss, save, goal and fight with appropriate crowd reactions they’re accustomed to hearing in the Dome.
“That will be their responsibility the entire season,” said Steve Edgar, the Flames’ manager of game presentation.
“They are both avid hockey fans, knowledgeable about the game. Those were the two big points – you want someone who knows the fans well and your fan base and how they react.”
At first, they’ll offer up a wide array of generic ‘oohs and aahs’ amongst dozens of other sounds, to provide a backdrop and enhance the storytelling of the game. As the season goes on, and their comfort level grows, they’ll add sounds unique to the Saddledome like Harvey the Hound’s drum beat, or the trumpet playing of a long-time local fan.
“We want to get the Loooooooch chant in there and ‘Go Flames Go’ to help continue our C of Red elements you normally hear in the Saddledome,” said Edgar of synthetic crowd noise that will echo through the Dome and bleed onto the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast.
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“It’s cool, they’re at a table with two pads with 20 or 25 buttons that light up and are all associated with different sounds. Once they get comfortable with where every sound is it will be like playing a piano and will sound instantaneous.”
Timing is everything, as was clear during the Flames’ two scrimmages when the Girard and Friesen were practicing crowd reactions and experimenting with levels.
Their mission: compliment, not dominate.
The league had audio specialists in both bubbles last summer, providing a similar in-house service, all with an eye on trying to make things as normal as possible for the players in a very abnormal time.
That goal continues.
“All of our in-arena components are built towards home-ice advantage, helping our players and our team succeed the best way we can with different elements like music, fire effects, the goal horn, goal celebrations, different videos – just things to enhance their experience as players competing in the game,” said Edgar, who has consulted with players and been working closely with GM Brad Treliving throughout the process.
“Regular music during whistle breaks, an opening video, all in an attempt to keep routine for players. It’s a big part of what we’ll do.”
Will Harvey the Hound be roaming the stands, making his presence felt?
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” smiled Edgar, keeping a few tricks up his sleeve.
“As we know in the past, he has marched to the beat of his own drum.”
Saturday night’s production won’t include over-the-top player introductions that generally open a season.
There will, however, be a tribute to long-time team president Ken King, who died March 11.
After the lone anthem, the puck will drop on the first of ten Canucks vs. Flames tilts, and the baseline sound of every game/broadcast will begin via a manufactured crowd buzz on a three-minute loop.
TV viewers will be struck right away by the red seat covers that ring the arena, making the team’s new home retro red jerseys pop.
“You’re never going to get the look and emotion on a broadcast that you would with 18,000 people in the stands, especially in our building where people are all wearing red,” said Edgar.
“But part of making those seat covers red is to try to mimic that. It’s a way for us to not only create pageantry but work with some of our partners too (with ads on the tarps). Under the circumstances I think the look on the broadcast will be awesome.”
For the first time, Edgar’s team has had to shift its focus from entertaining fans in the stands, to try incorporating viewers watching at home.
With that in mind, the team will be running its charity 50-50 online.
“It is requiring us to become more creative,” he said.
“For example, the coffee-cup shuffles. We’re devising ways to do those interactive games on your mobile device so people at home can continue to participate in Saddledome traditions like that with the help of our partners. With our Saddledome Live venue app we’ll have trivia contests and predictive gaming on our mobile app, like ‘which of these four defencemen will have the most ice time?’
“It’s such a unique opportunity for all of us.”