Leaning on Home-Team Broadcasts, NHL Network Ramps Up College Coverage
By Carolyn Braff
On a nationwide scale, college-hockey coverage is far scarcer than that of many other collegiate sports, but the NHL Network’s latest broadcast-rights deal aims to change that. This season, the NHL Network is broadcasting a package of 19 Friday-night game-of-the-week matchups from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), and Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), which will air in both the U.S. and Canada.
“I’m a big believer in the college product,” explains John Shannon, executive in charge of production and programming for the NHL Network. “The two feeder systems into the NHL, junior hockey and college hockey, are of high caliber, and I thought it was important to make sure that the network in its growth has both junior hockey and the college hockey covered.”
The rights agreement, which also includes the ECAC semifinals and final, relies on each of the host schools to provide the production feed of the game. “We would not have done this deal without the schools’ being involved and having a high level of broadcast competency,” Shannon says.
Given the startling quality of college hockey venues in places like Fargo, ND, and Bowling Green, OH, Shannon says facilities were the deciding factor in signing this broadcast agreement. “If I showed you the facility where we broadcast the Wisconsin vs. North Dakota game, you would have told me I was in an NHL rink. We had a lot more confidence in the quality of the television production coming out of these three leagues, knowing full well the venues and the TV equipment being used and the quality of people being supplied. There’s nothing minor-league about the production, and there’s nothing minor-league about the technical aspects of the shows.”
Each school in the CCHA, ECAC, and WCHA is permitted to produce its games as it sees fit, either farming work out to freelancers or getting students involved in the broadcast.
“We lean on the schools and their production entities as well, so, in many ways, we are more of a conduit to the fan,” Shannon says. “In dealing with the commissioners of the three leagues, we created a great line of communication, told them our needs, and they really became the facilitators for us.”
Having a facilitator on hand is key when coordinating broadcasts among these three conferences, as each has its own list of television agreements to fulfill.
“In the WCHA, we televise a lot of games, usually around 215 a year between regional TV, local over-the-air, state-wide cable,” explains commissioner Bruce McLeod. “Most of our institutions have pretty good experience in doing this, a lot of them 20-plus years. They’re a pretty darn good, reliable group of people and take a lot of pride in their production.”
To help ensure that those productions get to the right outlets, the CCHA relies on associate commissioner Fred Pletsch to coordinate the broadcasts and hold pre-broadcast meetings before every game,
WCHA employs a liaison to coordinate among member institutions, local production staff, and network partners.
“It gets complicated in our buildings, because most of our games are televised already,” McLeod explains. “Whether they do side-by-sides or one production with split feeds regarding the audio, we have a weekly conference call with all of the parties to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Each of the 12 WCHA member schools owns its regular-season TV rights, so the local production crew must produce a commercial-free feed to send to the NHL Network master controls in Toronto and Stamford, CT. That feed is then transmitted on Friday nights throughout Canada and the U.S., via the NHL Network.
“Basically, we take the feed and then offer support if they need some input on how to improve the production,” Shannon says.
None of the games are currently broadcast in HD, but “we’re very aware of where we need to be in the next two years, particularly in the U.S. market,” Shannon says. “We need to upgrade to HD.”
“Last year FSN Detroit produced our CCHA Championship game in HD,” explains CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos. “We hope that over time more and more games will be broadcast in HD, as it really enhances a hockey broadcast.”
In an effort to attract as many fans as possible to the collegiate product, in this experimental year with the Friday-night package, no games will be blacked out of any geographical market.
“We’re trying to introduce the hard-core hockey fan of the NHL to the prospects that are going to be the great players in the NHL for decades to come,” Shannon says. “There’s a whole horde of players that really cut their teeth in NCAA hockey that we can make the viewer enjoy long before they get to the NHL. We can introduce their faces and names to hockey fans anywhere.”