Photo Credit: Nathan Denette / Associated Press
It took 138 days between games, but hockey has finally returned and a champion will be crowned.
Now, with a different look postseason structure and two empty arenas hosting the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fun begins.
Single game exhibition play is under way for the 24 qualifying teams, and it’s given a glimpse of how the league plans to present the most emotional time of the year. Despite not having an in-person audience to add the ‘seventh man’ energy to the games, the peeks broadcasts have shown thus far are encouraging that it will be a uniquely entertaining second season for fans.
Though the NHL is the last of the North American major professional sports leagues to return to broadcast, it appears to have the most cohesive presentation plan thus far. There has been plenty of time to learn about the integration of artificial crowd noise from the likes of the Barclays Premier League and MLS, as well as how to provide digital backgrounds from the WNBA and NBA. Trial and error of other leagues should yield the most cohesive product.
The visuals at Scotiabank Arena and Rogers Place are fantastic. Similar tarping of lower bowl seats, as well as multiple digital video boards opposite the broadcast hard camera add uniformity, tied together with the Stanley Cup in the center ice circle give a feel of the highest level tournament. In arena lighting has been dimmer than normal, though it will change beginning in the qualifying round- perhaps an opportunity to add a more theatrical flair similar to a boxing match with focus solely on the ice sheet.
After all, players grew up traveling to play in elite multi-day single site events, and this just so happens to be the biggest ever put together. Panic! At The Disco has served as the soundtrack for the promotion so far, proclaiming “This Is The Greatest Show”, and the league has every opportunity to present it as such.
One thing to avoid is overuse of the digital video boards as a means to incorporate video of fans at home. Though circumstances have made the webcam view ubiquitous for work and meeting with friends in everyday life, seeing a wall of just head shots moving around in the background has been one of the most off putting aspects of basketball league presentations. There have been times MLS has had individual fans on webcam on the big screen behind one of the goals, creating an uncomfortable ‘looming’ appearance.
If anything, MLB’s use of cutouts to fill seats mirroring the Korean and other Asian baseball leagues has been the least obtrusive way of putting faces in the background. Were the NHL to adopt something similar, it could create a visual akin to how the 2020 Winter Classic felt like a college football game with colors split in to clear sections. Imagine a series between the Rangers and Flyers where the arena is split right down the middle with half blue and half orange clad ‘fans’. There would be the challenge of printing out, and then switching the cutouts for each game, but the visual would arguably be better than having to look at yet another web conference video wall.
Perhaps those screens if not kept as the current staid logos, could be used in a similar manner as the center ice scoreboards to display game stats for either the teams, players on ice, or a combination of the two. The league has said that the video boards are primarily there for the enhancement of the broadcasts, and will be tinkered with as the tournament progresses.
On television the games have been seamless in returning to a familiar presentation style. With the added benefit of having the announcers on site for national broadcasts for both NBC and SportsNet/CBC, they will be able to pick up on intricacies that don’t show up simply watching off a monitor. Brian Boucher being fulled boxed in between the benches as if in aquarium for the NBC broadcast means rink side insights remain, but unfortunately likely so too will Pierre McGuire. However, teams will still have local broadcasts for the qualifying and opening rounds as usual, with crews calling games off monitors at a different site similar to baseball, as well as major international events.
Most exciting is the potential for incorporating unique camera angles. Already a floating high angle has been used at both sites, allowing a full view of the offensive zone and giving a bit of a video game feel. Not having fans at the rink will also mean cameras can be placed at new positions to give new vantage points to see action develop. It also means more microphones, though thus far the audio mix has been hit and miss as far as how much of the on ice sounds and chatter can be heard, as well as in arena announcements and music.
The NHL has already said that there will be a gradual rollout of presentation features, leading to a more scaled up feel when the qualification round begins on Saturday. It’s encouraging that while there are additional features already planned, the league has stated that it will be fluid with what aspects they use to make the playoffs as entertaining for home viewing as possible. Just because there will be as many people as your average midweek Senators game at the rink doesn’t mean it can’t have a livelier environment.
Concern and care for the players has been paramount for the players and participants, as it should be in a pandemic. With how ‘Return To Play’ has been implemented, and how thus far there haven’t been the containment breaks of other leagues, it bodes well that that the NHL’s prudence will continue for how the playoffs play out on television screens.
It may not feel like the usual Stanley Cup Playoffs; then again nothing is usual about 2020. In trying times for so many it’ll be nice to see the ‘Show’ so familiar, but so necessarily and entertainingly different.
(Follow Hawk on Twitter: @EricTheHawk)