TV hockey returns without fans in seats and teams competing on bright, shallow ice surfaces, as in a shiny entertainment show on the floor.
The National Hockey League is restarting its 2020 season with the pandemic era, with Grammy winner Michael Buble singing the national anthem for the opening of the New York Rangers vs Carolina Hurricanes match on Saturday.
But beyond that, NBC, NBCSN and NHL Network viewers will stateide and Sportsnet and CBC audiences in Canada will watch games unlike any TV show ever, as the pro hockey league seems to save a season ravaged by COVID- 19-public health crisis.
They will not be jubilant or moaning fans in crowded stands as goals are scored, and team players over the next 60 days will be sequestered in so-called “bubble”
It’s a big challenge as the rumble and blossoming roar of fans fighting behind their team during the Stanley Cup playoffs each year is a big part of the energy and buzz that crosses screens to connect with the TV audience. Nor will the NHL hide empty seats 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 is no way we would put stuffed animals in seats,” Mayer says of Korean baseball filling empty stands with lavish toys. The NHL, ending a four-month pandemic, has instead gone to the Hollywood playbook and created giant TV sets to bring fans in over 160 countries closer to the action.
On games played behind closed doors, EA Sports will pump in crowd noise, and the lower levels in both arenas will be surrounded by mega-film panels, six LED screens that rise 30 meters 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 with other fans via social media, Zoom and other platforms.
On these giant arena video screens, viewers will see zoomed-in video, game replacements, taped pieces about their NHL heroes, team logos and graphics from Undefined Creative by superfans from the respective teams cheering at home. “We brought in a Hollywood director of show-lighting. We brought in set designs from entertainment and Broadway. We looked at this as a created TV event,” Mayer insists.
In addition to additional cameras for new angles on the game action, the bubble broadcasts will feature piped-in team cheers, songs and goal horns from each NHL team as sound. And rink-level microphones will enhance the natural sounds of the game – stops of metal skates on the ice, shots and players colliding on the boards.
However, NHL telecommunications have a slight tape delay to edit colorful language from players on the ice or team benches, which is largely part of the traditional game. “We know we have kids and family who are watching, it’s important to the league,” Mayer said.
Returning this weekend to start NHL playoffs in hubby is critical of the NHL, as it, like other pro leagues, will lose millions if it were to go without TV revenue tied to fall games.
Mayer as a sports fan has watched European football and now Major League Baseball and the NBA states are restarting their 2020 seasons in the midst of the pandemic, insisting that the NHL has not deliberately taken another step with its spray-painted TV broadcasts resembling shiny floor talent shows.
“It’s unbelievable that the sport is back and we were not trying in any way to be different. We just felt like this was the right approach for us,” he says. Complicating preparations for the NHL’s restart of the 2020 season is all that needs to be done on the go.
In early May, the NHL knew a season relaunch was in the works, but the league did not know in which hubby. The NHL looked at ten cities across North America as possible tournament venues and efforts throughout North America to tackle coronavirus spread.
“When you saw what was happening in areas of the United States and what was happening in Canada, it was a pretty easy decision. We went to where COVID was not a big issue,” Mayer said of choosing Toronto and Edmonton as hub cities. Then the pro-league settled with a strict cord around all NHL team players, coaches and staff, urging that everyone never come out of hotels and lanes hidden behind cement blocks and black curtains to interact with the outside world.
“There’s no mess around. Our protocols are so strong and strict. I wear a mask. Everyone wears a mask and social distancing. Everywhere,” Mayer explains. And to create the bespoke for-TV events, the NHL decided on weeks of phone calls and design drawings with its set builders, led by Hotopp Productions, and quickly went for 3D modeling and construction.
In addition to this weekend’s relaunch, Mayer and his team are already imagining how they will broadcast the NHL’s most authentic television tradition – raising the Stanley Cup by the playoff winning team – without screaming and welcoming fans in team colors to the arena.
“We know we have to give the moment it is due and make it special and make it unique for this year, what we are all going through and make it memorable, for 20 years from now everyone will be talking about this time period, this endgame, this is so different, ”he insists.