At the Rink: Inside the Dallas Stars’ Wild Month of March
Team played six games in 11 days, 12 games in one month after sudden snowstorm
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.
2021 has been a welcome sign for many in the National Hockey League, but down in the Lone Star State, the new year began with a couple of hiccups. After abnormally-cold weather that turned into a winter storm with a lot of snow and a brief COVID-19 outbreak, the Dallas Stars were forced to postpone many of their early home games. Through the diligent work of Director, Game Presentation Kevin Harp and his staff, the in-venue team were able to produce shows for six games in 11 days and 12 total in the month of March.
“I’ve never worked in baseball and always imagined that it was a lot [to handle] with so many games, but I feel like I got a taste of it,” he says. “It was definitely a challenge.”
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A Hot Start: Crew Overcomes Lack of Preparation to Raise Western Conference Banner
The 2019-20 campaign was definitely one to remember. Aside from the roller coaster ride that occurred after the stoppage and resumption of the season, the duo of Jamie Benn and Joe Pavelski led the Stars to their first Stanley Cup appearance since the turn of the century in 1999-2000. Although the squad was defeated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games, the franchise wanted to honor them by raising the Western Conference Championship banner during the first home game of the 2021 schedule on Friday, January 22. At the time, without staffers being present in either bubble of the NHL playoffs and only a couple of preseason games, the team hadn’t produced a home game at American Airlines Center since Tuesday, March 10, 2020.
“Opening night was a bit different for us,” says Harp. “We almost had to be in mid-season form, but we just didn’t have any of that since we haven’t played [at home] in 10 months.”
One of the biggest obstacles that needed to be addressed was creating an atmosphere that would draw emotion out of their fans. During any ceremony, music plays a vital role in getting the crowd into the desired mindset. After former DJ, Michael “Grubes” Gruber, accepted a new role with the nearby Texas Rangers, Harp worked with their new DJ, Music Director Jonathon “Shippy” Shipman, to get through this special moment in franchise history.
“We had a lot on our plate,” says Harp. “We ended up winning 7-0, and that definitely helped a lot, but it was an opening night like never before. [Shipman] did really well that night and he’s done well all season long, so I’m pretty happy with how he’s progressed.”
An Action-Packed March: Team Hosts Long Stretch of Home Games After Sudden Snowstorm
The current season’s structure accounts for a handful of consecutive home games, but the Stars experienced a situation that can be daunting for any trained production professional. The inclement weather forced many professional and collegiate teams around the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area to reschedule games. The Dallas Mavericks, the other organization that plays in American Airlines Center, were impacted by this same winter pattern. Luckily, the NBA franchise only hosted five games in March, which left the venue’s operations team with more breathing room to work with. From a production perspective, the club decided to deliver a more straightforward show that didn’t involve themed elements.
“We made sure we didn’t have any theme nights that were running concurrently in one of these blocks of home games,” says Harp.” We came together and realized that theme nights take a lot of extra work, so our strategy paid dividends for us.”
After the final contest of the month against the Florida Panthers on Sunday, March 28, the hellish stretch of games was finally over. Navigating a hefty number of games became a herculean effort to pull off, but the experience showcased the determination and passion of the entire crew.
“Walking out of [the arena] after that last game, we were all worn out,” he adds. “We’re all extremely glad that it’s behind us.”
Having Some Fun: Bally Sports Southwest Uses Videoboard as Television Backdrop
With fans in the seats since the first game un January, the franchise and its local regional sports network, Bally Sports Southwest, have fostered an in-venue experience where the Stars’ internal production team plays a huge role in the television product. For example, fabricated crowd noise is still generating a fair amount of the sound heard by fans on the linear broadcast. Inside of American Airlines Center, the RSN is hosting a pregame, intermission, and postgame show on a perch that overlooks the ice. From that spot, the production staff is lending their videoboard as an ample backdrop for the set or as an opportunity to poke fun at on-air personalities, like Brien Rea.
“It’s a big backdrop behind them, so we’ll just drop down a sign and photobomb them at intermission,” says Harp. “It’s something new that we’ve been doing this season. With our restraints on staff limitations, I’m pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with the resources that are available.”
Along with these shows, the videoboard is churning out traditional material that integrates sponsors. The team is also mixing in humor into chances for fan interaction as well.
“We’ve been doing a Socially Kiss-tant Cam where we basically split-screen people and they blow kisses to each other,” he continues. “We’ve also done a socially distant dance cam and broke out our Stud Finder.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: A Shoutout to the Stars’ Production Team
Out of the final 13 games of the regular season, only four of them will be played at home. The team in the control room is getting closer to the finish line, and with the club sitting on the outside of the last playoff spot in the Central Division, they’re looking to give the players any boost that they can. During this last stretch of games and throughout this season, it’s taken company-wide collaboration to entertain fans. On the creative team, SVP, Marketing Dan Stuchal; Director, Creative Jeff Neal; Director, Production Cody Eastwood; and Senior Graphic Designer Tiffany Johansen have kept fans connected through their work on digital and social media. On the game presentation team, Manager, Game Presentation Jonathan Maniet; In-Arena Director Terri McCormack; In-Game Host Celena Rae; PA Announcer Jeff Kovarsky; Director, Ice Girls Robbyn Dougherty; Coordinator, Mascot Nathan Sidey; and Manager, Promotions Eric Wilder have dazzled fans in their seat at every home game. On the sponsorship team, VP, Corporate Partnerships Guy Tomcheck; Director, Corporate Partnerships Andrew Durbin; and Director, Activation Collette Rushing have given their partners a blank canvas to express their messaging. Lastly, Harp’s team wouldn’t be able to work without the operations team of American Airlines Center, including Broadcast Systems Engineer Scott Davidson, Audio Engineer Chris Iacuone, and Arena Graphics Coordinator Jim Greene.
In a year where challenges are plentiful and adversity is commonplace, Harp and his colleagues are grateful to be back to doing what they do best.
“We had a couple of unforeseen things early on, but we’re all thankful to be back at work,” he concludes.
The Dallas Stars will continue their five-game home stand at American Airlines Center tonight against the Detroit Red Wings at 7:30 p.m. ET.