According to their script, NBC celebrates hockey

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Rangers coach John Tortorella and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist talk about the Rangers 3-2 win over the Flyers. Videojournalists: Mario Gonzalez, Robert Cassidy (Jan. 2, 2012)

PHILADELPHIA

There is nothing normal about the NHL Winter Classic -- not for players, not for fans and certainly not for the people who bring it to you on television.

Take Pierre McGuire and his toenails.

The NBC analyst, who works between the team benches at ice level, learned a lesson at the 2009 game in Chicago after doing pregame interviews on skates. His feet were bare inside them, as is his custom.

"I was perspiring so much during warm-ups and then had the skates on all day,'' he said. "I was frozen. Then I got on a plane to fly back to Ottawa and I noticed my toenails were falling off.''

Three of them, to be precise. He could laugh about it now as he stood in his rinkside perch Monday morning at Citizens Bank Park before the Rangers faced the Flyers in Winter Classic V.

"I wear little socks now,'' McGuire said, pulling up his pants leg. Lesson learned.

So it has gone for the network as it navigates the challenges of showing hockey games outdoors, to audiences larger and less hockey-savvy than most.

It is a daunting task for a production team full of puckheads who want to serve existing fans and help create new ones.

Producer Sam Flood began a staff meeting at 10 a.m. by urging everyone to "celebrate the game of hockey, but make sure we don't go too inside the game,'' reminding the announcers that casual viewers "aren't going to know Saskatoon from Albuquerque.''

A few hours later, when the Flyers' Brayden Schenn scored the game's first goal, play-by-play man Doc Emrick informed the audience that the young player is from . . . yup, Saskatoon.

Oh, well. Emrick is the best in the hockey business, and his upbeat approach to the event is one of its biggest television selling points, so most is forgiven.

NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus acknowledged the importance of telling an honest story, not serving as cheerleaders. But he did say this: "We all take very seriously our role in selling the sport and making it more accessible and making people understand the fun of it.''

The best way to do that is to let the sport sell itself, which it did again during a hectic finish.

NBC provided excellent replays of Ryan McDonagh covering a puck in the crease with 19.6 seconds remaining, leading to a penalty shot taken by the Flyers' Danny Briere that Henrik Lundqvist stopped.

That sort of drama sustains the event beyond its novelty -- and provides HBO with material for its "24/7" series, which concludes Thursday, much to the relief of both coaches.

NBC was faced with an added burden Monday, having learned barely 24 hours earlier that the game would start at 3 p.m. rather than 1, necessitating an instant two-hour pregame show.

The network survived thanks to recorded material and improvising by announcers. The long run-up was a mixture of good, bad and comical, such as when analyst Mike Milbury stumbled verbally when trying to call the Rangers the "Blueshirts" and an expletive slipped out.

The trick during the game itself is to create an intimate feel in an atmosphere that is anything but.

Most fans sat far from the rink laid out in the middle of the Phillies' field, surrounded by fluffy white material masquerading as snow.

Emrick and analyst Ed Olczyk worked from a makeshift rinkside stand, whipped by chilly winds and unable to see some of what occurred along the boards on the near side.

"Normally, the players can see the puck, so you watch where their heads are turned and you can figure it out,'' Emrick said. "There are blind spots. But the upside is we are close and you get a better feel.''

It was a historic afternoon for NBC, which launched NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus, at 4 p.m. during the first intermission of the Classic.

Jon Miller, the network's top programming executive, watched in a trailer outside the stadium as studio host and former Newsday sports part-timer Liam McHugh welcomed viewers.

The corporate marriage of the two channels under the Comcast umbrella has brought together the NHL's two major American TV partners.

It was another reason for the network to celebrate the sport on a day designed to do precisely that.

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