At the Rink: Top-Ranked Colorado Avalanche Revel in the Return of Fans
The team is taking lessons from the NBA’s Denver Nuggets
The National Hockey League was the last of the four major U.S. sports leagues to host a non-bubble regular season. As fans gradually make their return to the seats, how is that affecting in-venue productions and digital content? Similar to At the Ballpark, On the Gridiron, and On the Hardwood, At the Rink looks at the operations of NHL organizations to see how they are coping with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and adapting to a sense of normalcy.
It has been 25 years since the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche. A quarter century later, the Avs are the NHL’s best team, at 62 points, and they’re getting even more firepower for a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the return of 4,050 fans at Ball Arena.
“We were able to jump right back in and not miss a beat after starting out without fans,” says Steve Johnston, executive producer/director, game presentation, Colorado Avalanche. “We’re continuing to make those little adjustments, but everyone’s continuing to be on top of things to make sure that we’re always ready to go.”
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Semi-Normal Production: Crew Adds Replay Servers for Videoboard Show
With four games remaining in the 2021 regular season, the Avalanche have welcomed a tad over 4,000 fans to Ball Arena. Having lower-bowl seats filled with patrons has allowed the franchise to expand the game-day environment that has prevailed over the past four months and the number of personnel housed in the control room.
“We’re almost back to a full production,” says Johnston. “We basically started [the season] with our PA announcer, crowd sweetener, DJ, and a show caller [onsite].”
From a small staff and a videoboard show that leveraged the feed from local RSN Altitude Sports & Entertainment, the show has become more robust, thanks to additional equipment. It offers more opportunities for fan-centric content during breaks in play and features a pregame hype video and light show commemorating the team’s silver anniversary in the Centennial State.
“We’re slowly adding our own replays to make that videoboard show a little more of a home production,” Johnston explains. “There are a few positions that we’ve had to cut out, like Font assist on Chyron and our RF handheld cameras that are usually roaming around.”
Model for Reference: Nuggets Productions Provide Template for NHL Schedule
In cities that have more than one professional sports organization, in-venue crews are able to tap each other for potential production ideas. In some cases, a single individual is responsible for game presentations of multiple teams. Like Kyle Campbell, director, game experience, NFL’s New Orleans Saints and NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, Johnston is responsible for shows of another team that plays home games in Ball Arena: the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. From both a creative and a logistical standpoint, a lot has changed since the beginning of the NBA season in January, but he is able to adjust his strategy when necessary.
“We were able to learn a lot from teams who had fans back before we did,” he points out. “It has been interesting to go from no fans with a bare-bones crew to where we are now, but it’s all about adjusting to the various internal, city, state, and leaguewide protocols.”
Over the past year, Johnston has used experience to navigate the onslaught of obstacles, but he has also learned a ton of lessons. In last summer’s NHL bubble in Edmonton, AB, the club created a second-screen experience dubbed Avs Virtual Gameday to keep fans entertained at home. The offering provided pregame, intermission, and postgame analysis; chances for giveaways; and content featuring notable faces past and present. With these new concepts and procedures, Johnston is more than glad to transition to a traditional show.
“This is the most normal that things have felt in a long time,” he says. “[There are] some small differences in the positions of people. [For example,] our PA announcer on the Avs, legendary PA announcer Alan Roach, is used to calling the show and doing announcements from the penalty box. [Now] he’s up on a kind of a stage on a little platform, separated from the crowd. He has two headsets and is talking to the off-ice officials. Those are the adjustments that I think we’ve all just learned to roll with.”
Change in Sound: Augmented Crowd Noise Takes Back Seat to the Real Thing
One of the biggest changes has to do with crowd sound. Across all professional leagues, fabricated sound has been pumped into venues through the PA system and equipment developed by Firehouse Productions. This soundtrack has become commonplace throughout the pandemic, but, with real-life fans in the building, the crew is approaching this part of the show with a bit more nuance.
“For our first game with fans,” Johnston explains, “I talked to our A1, and we decided to drop our [artificial] crowd sound to 6 dB, which is essentially cutting it in half. Our approach was to start lower and give the fans who are there a chance to cheer, since we didn’t want them competing with the fake crowd sound.”
The Avalanche staff has created an intriguing balance between the augmented audio and the fans. Instead of being the sole foundation, the artificial crowd noise is filling the gaps for a crowd that is well below what the venue usually hosts. In addition, the league is using the system to provide a complete audio profile for the linear broadcast.
“We want the fake crowd sound to be a little quieter while also needing it to be there for television,” he says. “There are important times to supplement [authentic crowd noise], so, as the game heads into those intense moments, we’ll ride with [the augmented audio] just a bit.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: Notable Names of Avalanche’s Production Team
Based on current NBA and NHL standings, Johnston and the rest of his crew are on pace for a lot of postseason action. With a handful of these games possibly bumping up against each other, it’ll be a significant challenge for a staff that has been through a lot since March 2020. For a potentially busy May (or June, depending on the respective teams’ success), he’ll rely on the experience of his colleagues, including fellow Director, Game Presentation, Camden Kelley; Senior Director/Producer, Broadcast Services, Ryan Gonzales; and Broadcast Production Coordinator Ben Meadows.
“We have a veteran crew that includes full timers and part-timers,” says Johnston. “We’re not on our normal schedule, and it’s a lot of crossing of T’s and dotting of I’s, but everyone has been fantastic.”
The Colorado Avalanche will host the Los Angeles Kings at Ball Arena on Friday, April 16 at 9 p.m. ET.