2021 Executive Reflections: How the NHL Pulled Off Its ‘Return To Play’
When the pandemic hit the U.S. full force in March 2020, sports production was forced to accelerate technology changes that were already in motion but not expected to happen for several years. Health and safety came to the forefront of production concerns at the same time as engineers were racing to enable talent and tech to work from their homes. As always, the production industry came together as a family to deliver sports television to a public that was hungry for live entertainment. This editorial by members of the NHL is the latest in a series of “2021 Reflections” from SVG’s 2021 Sports Production Yearbook in which sports-production leaders look back on a year unlike any other and offer projections for the year ahead.
On Sept. 28, the Tampa Bay Lightning were crowned 2020 Stanley Cup Champion after defeating the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final to end an unprecedented postseason that started with players arriving in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton on July 26 and ended with Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos hoisting the Stanley Cup surrounded by teammates — nearly one year after the 2019-20 season began on Oct. 2, 2019.
The clinching victory came 363 days after the puck dropped on the regular season, 201 days after the pause began, and 65 days after players entered “bubbles” in Edmonton and Toronto for a postseason unlike any other in league history. The NHL became the first North American major professional sports league to successfully complete its season. The two highly complex, secure bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton included administration of 33,394 COVID-19 tests to the 24 teams’ players and staff with zero positive test results.
The NHL’s Return To Play plan and bubble success presented 1,042 hours of Stanley Cup Playoffs broadcast coverage across North America. Games were also broadcast worldwide to more than 160 countries and territories, using a host/world-feed broadcast system (NBC in Toronto, Rogers in Edmonton).
It was a challenge for all involved to keep everyone safe, along with supporting the needs of the NHL’s national and regional rightsholders as part of the world-feed format. Rightsholders produced the shows remotely, minimizing the number of personnel onsite. Every NHL staffer worked tirelessly, leading up to and in the hub cities.
Leading the technical project were the NHL’s Peter DelGiacco, EVP/CTO; Grant Nodine, SVP, technology; Mark Haden, group VP, broadcast technology; Dan O’Neill, VP, arena and event operations; and John Frantzeskakis, VP, arena technical operations.
Leveraging the NHL’s extensive outdoor-event experience, the crew designed, rigged, and built in-arena stages, LED displays, theater-style lighting rigs, and graphic displays, transforming the respective arenas into a sophisticated, giant television studio, flooding the arenas with as much visual excitement as the cameras could take in. The world feed featured enhanced in-game audio and an arsenal of cameras, including super-slo-mo robotics, around the rink and in the dasher boards, and JITACAM, which enabled producers and directors to showcase the sounds, speed, and skills of each game.
The NHL worked with EA Sports, NBC, and Rogers to design and deploy a solution based on the Ableton Live software platform to dynamically change the sound of the crowd to correspond to the action on the ice. The mixers did an incredible job of providing that layer of sound both on the broadcasts and in the bowl. In fact, one day, the house PA forgot to track it, and the players pointed this out immediately.
With no fans in the stands, player profanity could be easily heard, so Ross’s Air Cleaner was deployed. Its advantage was to garble the on-ice audio instead of blanking it out. Evertz’s Scorpion MIO solution was used to delay the myriad signals being ingested remotely in the rightsholders’ Integration-Control Rooms (ICRs).
Having a plethora of score-bugs shipped to site made no sense to the NHL. The scoreboard serial data was wired into an Evertz card, shipped out, de-embedded by the end users, and wired into score-bugs in the respective ICRs. With up to three games per day in the early rounds, the league had to significantly increase the content-capture and -distribution systems. Zixi was deployed to enable multiple end users to get content quickly, efficiently, and with high-quality monitored delivery.
The NHL’s puck- and player-tracking technology system and virtual graphics were successfully integrated into NBC’s and Rogers’s broadcasts during the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final.
Contributing effort, collaboration, and expertise in support of such a dynamic event were the NHL’s partners and vendors: Rogers/Sportsnet, Dome Productions, NBC Sports, NEP, Cat Entertainment Services, World Stage, SoloTech, HoTopp, AWS/Elemental, Apple, SAP, Daktronics, Aurora Productions, JITACAM, SMT, Fletcher, Bexel, All Mobile Video, Ross Video, SOS Global, Kenny Lighting, Arup, Evertz, CenturyLink, The Switch, Zixi, Encompass, and Just Lighting
These games were a challenge to plan, build out, and run but were a major success. A lot of work but worth every minute!