NHL Puck Drop 2021: NHL Network Expands Showcase Schedule, Boosts Onsite Presence at Marquee Events
The broadcaster is slated to air 34 games this season
Over the past two nights, the National Hockey League returned to ESPN after 17 years and debuted on TNT. Another broadcast partner, NHL Network, is also entering the 2021-22 season, with wind in its production sails in the form of an increased slate of NHL Showcase games, additional coverage for international fans, and a return to onsite operations for major events.
“Our goal is to get back out on the road,” says Josh Bernstein, VP, production, NHL Network. “We want to get as close to normal as we can. It may not look exactly the way it used to, but we’ll be out there again.”
More Exclusive Action: Showcase Slate Grows From 16 to 25
As the broadcaster’s main platform for the league’s biggest matchups, NHL Network Showcase will feature a wide array of franchises this season. The schedule will be increased from last year‘s 16 games to 25. The 2020-21 campaign was the first time that NHL Network deployed its own on-air talent and technologies for these games, and the crew is looking to improve that positive synergy in this increased workload.
Leading the on-air team will be E.J. Hradek and Mike Johnson on the call for their first Showcase game, between the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes on Saturday, Oct. 16 at 1 p.m. ET. Stephen Nelson and Dave Reid will call the second NHL Network Showcase of the year: the Calgary Flames and Washington Capitals on Saturday, Oct. 23 at 1:00 p.m. Although the pandemic has retreated slightly thanks to vaccines, play-by-play commentators and analysts will be calling each game from the NHL Network facility in Secaucus, NJ.
A flypack and technician will be onsite for additional camera feeds, but the working relationship with regional sports networks will continue to provide other essential resources. New technologies will include further implementation of virtual–blue-line technology.
“Last year was an opportunity for us to create a game package and showcase the talent and technology that we have,” says Eric Eisenberg, VP, programming and operations, NHL Network. “It has been phenomenal to be able to grow our package out this year and take it to the next level.”
From a technological perspective, the network’s coverage of two virtual NHL Drafts has generated a lot of inspiration for the remote-production workflows still being used in Secaucus. Since the same facility houses MLB Network, cloud-based solutions were used for the 2020 World Series in Arlington, TX, and for the 2021 MLB All-Star Game in Denver.
“We’ve been able to learn from all these shows that had fewer people in the field,” says Jake Soto, VP, engineering and IT, NHL Network. “We’re now reinvesting all of [that technology] for hockey.”
Global Audience: Live Coverage Includes Nine International-Only Games
With numerous international players lighting up the ice, NHL Network is committed to serving the fan who lives outside the U.S. Along with the 25 exclusive productions, nine games will target the global audience. Eisenberg and his team have been working closely with the league’s technical team and international-productions team to fine-tune these broadcasts.
“We’ve decided to separate production elements that we used to share in the past,” he explains. “We’ll have a little more flexibility with what we’re going to do, and I think that that’ll pay dividends for specific graphics on an international-only game or a Showcase game.”
The network has worked hard to make both games personalized and seamless and, since beginning this effort last season, has received positive feedback from viewers watching both internationally and domestically. In addition, NHL Network and MLB Network are joining forces to put on a high-quality NHL show.
“The mentality in our building is that you’re not working only hockey or baseball, but you’re working across both sports,” adds Eisenberg. “We’re really fortunate to have that mindset, and we’ll continue to adjust and evolve.”
Bringing the Show Onsite: Studio Programming Travels to Tentpole Events
For diehard supporters of the game, viewers flock to NHL Network for up-to-date information. The broadcaster is looking forward to producing a slate of studio shows that reflect on the day’s action, discuss the main plotlines happening in the league, and preview upcoming matchups.
Leading off the studio shows will be NHL Now with Hradek and Jackie Redmond on weekdays at 4 p.m. NHL Tonight will provide live look-ins into games throughout the league and in-studio demos at 6 p.m. And On the Fly, with guests like Mike Kelly, will showcase highlights of the day’s action. Starting the day of the first Showcase game, Ice Time will return to bring kid-centric content to young fans at 9 a.m.
In addition to Nelson, hosts Jamison Coyle, Lauren Gardner, Jamie Hersch, Tony Luftman, and Adnan Virk are on the roster of studio talent. Jeff Gorton joins analysts Bruce Boudreau, Ken Daneyko, Jeff Gorton, Stu Grimson, Scott Hartnell, Billy Jaffe, Mike Johnson, Brian Lawton, Bill Lindsay, Mark Parrish, David Reid, Mike Rupp, and Kevin Weekes.
Logistical hurdles abound with the network’s coverage of the MLB Postseason running up against the opening slate of NHL games. Since the beginning of the pandemic, though, COVID-19 protocols have required the team to handle a lot of talent in different studios simultaneously.
“Over the last 19 months,” says Soto, “we’ve had a lot of moves and changes because of social distancing. We’re on the backside of [those initial months] and trying to [accommodate] everything, but our primary control room for hockey is ready to go.”
On the NHL calendar are high-profile events that promise fans unprecedented experiences: the 2022 NHL Winter Classic in Minnesota, the 2022 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, 2022 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series in Nashville, and the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the pandemic continues in the right direction, the network plans to have a studio onsite to report on the festivities firsthand.
“Getting access to the players and seeing the excitement around the stadium is so much better when you’re there,” says Bernstein. “We have a really good slate of games this season that leads into All-Star Weekend and the playoffs, so we’re pumped to be back.”
Back on the Ice: New Storylines Promise an Exciting Year
There are a lot of reasons to be ecstatic for the start of the NHL season: two new rightsholders, the debut of the New York Islanders’ UBS Arena in late November, and the introduction of the league’s 32nd franchise, the Seattle Kraken. As both a broadcaster and a go-to hub for all things hockey, NHL Network is gearing up for yet another year of expansive coverage.
“I’ve been with NHL Network since 2008,” notes Eisenberg. “After all these years, I still get butterflies when we’re starting a season. NHL Network is a great place to get your hockey information, and we’ll be a nice complement to the live games that will be on other networks.”