TV hockey is returning with no fans in seats and teams competing on bright, brash ice surfaces as if in a shiny floor entertainment show.
The National Hockey League is restarting its pandemic-era 2020 season with Grammy winner Michael Buble singing the national anthem for the opening New York Rangers vs Carolina Hurricanes match-up on Saturday.
But beyond that, NBC, NBCSN and the NHL Network viewers stateside and Sportsnet and CBC audiences in Canada will see games unlike any ever broadcast as the pro hockey league looks to salvage a season ravaged by the COVID-19 public health crisis.
They’ll be no cheering or groaning fans in packed stands as goals are scored, and team players over the next 60 days will be sequestered in so-called “bubble” hotels and arenas in Toronto and Edmonton as safety precautions. And as the NHL’s chief content officer Steve Mayer tells THR, the pro league was never going to drop a hockey puck in silent, cold arenas.
That’s a major challenge as the rumble and booming roar of fans rallying behind their teams during the Stanley Cup playoffs each year is a big part of the energy and buzz that crosses screens to connect with TV audiences. Nor will the NHL disguise empty seating in Toronto’s Scotiabank and Edmonton’s Rogers Place arenas with virtual fan walls or cardboard cutouts.
“With all due respect to my Korean friends, there’s no way we were going to put stuffed animals in seats,” Mayer says of Korean baseball filling empty stands with plush toys. The NHL, ending a four month pandemic hiatus, has instead gone to the Hollywood playbook and created giant made-for-TV sets to bring fans in over 160 countries closer to the action.
At games played behind closed doors, EA Sports will pump in crowd noise and the lower levels of both arenas will be surrounded by mega graphic panels, six LED screens rising 30 feet in the air, and stages. “We want to give them a show,” Mayer said of team fans watching from home, surrounded by friends and family or connected to fellow fans via social media, Zoom and other platforms.
On those giant arena video screens, viewers will see zoomed-in video, game replays, taped pieces about their NHL heroes, team logos and graphics from Undefined Creative of superfans from the respective teams cheering at home. “We brought in a Hollywood award show lighting director. We brought in set design from entertainment and Broadway. We looked at this as a made-for-television event,” Mayer insists.
Besides additional cameras for new angles on the game action, the bubble broadcasts will include piped-in team cheers, songs and goal horns from each NHL teams as audio. And rink-level microphones will enhance the natural sounds of the game — the stopping of metal skates on the ice, slap shots and players colliding on the boards.
The NHL telecasts will be on a slight tape delay, however, to edit out colorful language from players on the ice or team benches, which is very much a part of the traditional game. “We know we have kids and family watching, that’s important for the league,” Mayer says.
Returning this weekend to launch the NHL playoffs in hub cities is critical for the NHL as, like other pro leagues, it stood to lose millions if it had to go without TV revenue tied to postseason play.
Mayer as a sports fan has watched European soccer and now Major League Baseball and the NBA stateside restart their 2020 seasons amid the pandemic, and insists the NHL didn’t deliberately take a different tack with its splashy TV broadcasts that resemble shiny floor talent shows.
“It’s amazing that sports is back and we weren’t trying to be different, by any means. We just felt this was the right approach for us,” he says. Complicating the preparations for the NHL’s 2020 season restart is everything had to be done on the fly.
By early May, the NHL knew a season relaunch was in the works, but the league didn’t know in which hub cities. The NHL eyed ten cities acro