NHL All-Star 2024: ESPN Aims for Access in Toronto with Strategic Positioning of Robotic Cameras

A collaborative effort between ESPN, Sportsnet, TVA, and the NHL supports the event as it grows to three days

Bigger and better. That’s the feel this week in Toronto as NHL All-Star descends on one of hockey’s great cities for an expanded three-day celebration of the game’s current greats.

ESPN is on hand at Scotiabank Arena to produce live coverage of all of the marquee events, including the NHL All-Star Player Draft (which took place on Thursday night), the NHL All-Star Skills Competition (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN+) and the NHL All-Star Game (Saturday, 3 p.m., ABC, ESPN+).

NHL All-Star festivities in Toronto kicked off on Thursday night with the NHL All-Star Player Draft. The event was broadcast in the U.S. on ESPN2 and streamed to ESPN+. (Photo: Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images)

It’s a special opportunity for ESPN – now in its third season of its second-generation of covering the NHL – to visit the heart of the sport, while taking some creative chances with broadcast technology to deliver an authentic feel of the event that brings viewers closer to the action than ever before.

“Traveling to Canada for this year’s NHL All-Star Game holds immense significance and excitement for ESPN,” says Erin Orr, Senior Operations Manager for ESPN. “It represents an opportunity to embrace the unique energy and spirit of the Canadian hockey community, adding a special flavor to our coverage. The vibrant hockey culture in Canada is unparalleled and being on location allows us to immerse ourselves in the passionate atmosphere that surrounds the sport.”

In addition to deploying a standard camera complement that one would expect to see at an NHL-level hockey broadcast, ESPN and the Canadian broadcast rightsholder Sportsnet, are teaming up to deliver and share resources. That includes the four-point cabled aerial SupraCam, a wireless camera shooting in shallow depth-of-field operated on the ice by a camera operator on skates, and a wealth of strategically-placed robotic cameras.

“The NHL All-Star Weekend presents an opportunity to capture and accentuate every aspect, from the visual to the auditory, through the utilization of various specialized cameras and microphones,” says Jeff Werner, Senior Operations Specialist for ESPN. “In essence, this comprehensive deployment of specialty cameras ensures that every facet of the NHL All-Star Weekend is meticulously documented and presented to the audience with innovation and flair.”

ESPN has a studio area for shoulder programming surrounding the 2024 NHL All-Star events. (Photo Courtesy of ESPN)

Among the lineup of robos includes in-net cameras, angles of the benches, and ankle-level perspectives within the boards at ice level. For the Skills Challenge specifically, robotic cameras are being placed around the ice surface and resemble the look of a PylonCam.

At the end of the day, the common theme about the looser nature of All-Star Games is the opportunity to get closer to the players than a typical game night allows for. Access is the name of the game.

“This event is all about access,” says Linda Schulz, coordinating producer for ESPN’s NHL coverage. “This is an exciting and rare opportunity to hang with players on and off the ice. [Analysts] PK Subban and Kevin Weekes will be on the Ice during the Skills Competition chatting with [the players] and during the [All-Star Game], [reporter] Emily Kaplan and Weekes will be on the benches with the players. You’ll see locker room interviews throughout the weekend and POV cameras that bring you closer to the ice.”

The NHL has made a conscious effort to expand the footprint of this year’s All-Star festivities, extending the event to three days from the previous two. On Thursday night, the league hosted the NHL All-Star Player Draft (which was broadcast in the U.S. on ESPN2 and streamed to ESPN+) and a special PWHL 3-on-3 Showcase (streamed to ESPN+) to showcase standout players from the newly launched Professional Women’s Hockey League.

“As the All-Star event expands both in terms of the number of events and the overall duration, the collaborative nature of operational planning becomes increasingly crucial,” says Orr. “The growth of the event necessitates a comprehensive approach that involves coordination across various teams and departments. Operational planning now extends beyond just the game itself, encompassing a broader spectrum of activities and experiences. The collaborative planning involves aligning schedules, resources, and technical requirements to ensure a seamless and engaging experience for both participants and viewers.

ESPN’s John Buccigross (left) helped host the NHL All-Star Player Draft on Thursday night. (Photo: Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images)

To pull everything off, it takes a collaborative effort between ESPN, Sportsnet, the NHL, and even the French-language Canadian broadcaster TVA. Not only is gear shared, but so are personnel with all sides helping each other when needed.

“Communication and collaboration become key pillars of success,” adds Orr. “Regular meetings, clear channels of communication, and the establishment of shared goals are essential in maintaining a cohesive operational plan.”

“This partnership is marked by positive growth and productivity and extends across various essential elements within the sports broadcasting realm,” says Werner. “Cameras, personnel, logistics, and equipment are all jointly utilized, highlighting the efficiency and strategic coordination among these entities. It’s noteworthy that beyond the technical resources, a unique and valuable asset shared is the warm hospitality extended by Canadians, along with the enjoyable camaraderie. This not only enhances the overall collaborative atmosphere but also adds a cultural dimension to the shared experience.”

At the front bench of Game Creek Video’s ’79 mobile production unit, Jeff Dufine is the producer for the All-Star Game while Andy Jacobson is the producer of the Skills Competition. Doug Holmes will sit in the director’s chair for both.

Playing key roles for ESPN on site in Toronto include Operations Specialists Brock Wetherbee and Jon Winders, as well as Operations Coordinators Carson Kenney and Adam Moossman.

While there is a sizable contingent from ESPN on-site in Toronto, the network is utilizing staff and equipment back in Bristol to support replay operations for both the Skills Competition and the All-Star Game itself.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to innovate, adapt, and deliver an All-Star experience,” says Orr, “that exceeds expectations as the event grows in scale and duration.”

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