Hockey is back! But for many of your favorite announcers, the experience will be a lot like yours: watching games on television.
Such is life during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 12 NHL teams set to play three playoff rounds in Toronto and 12 others in Edmonton before the final four convene in Edmonton for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.
For New York-area fans, it begins on Wednesday night with an exhibition between the Rangers and Islanders that MSG and MSG+ will carry with the team’s regular announcing crews.
Then comes the qualifying round itself starting on Saturday, with MSG guaranteed to have at least the first three games of each team’s series.
But when Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti call the Rangers games and Brendan Burke and Butch Goring do the Islanders, they will be located not in Toronto but rather in MSG’s studios across the street from Madison Square Garden.
Same goes for studio hosts and analysts John Giannone, Steve Valiquette, Shannon Hogan and AJ Mleczko.
(The Rangers’ radio announcers, Kenny Albert and Dave Maloney, will work out of ESPN New York’s studios in Manhattan and the Islanders’ Chris King and Greg Picker will be at Hofstra’s WRHU.)
Does Jeff Filippi, MSG’s executive producer, worry the quality of the calls will be hurt by the announcers using monitors rather than being there in person?
“Thankfully, that’s about as far down as it goes on the concern list,” he said, referring to the experience Rosen and Burke have with monitors, and the quality of their work in general.
Still, the production people for local channels will have less control over the telecast than is customary.
NBC will produce a shared feed for the games in Toronto, then channels such as MSG will add graphics and other elements to localize the presentation.
Local channels from each team also will have control over one camera each to further adapt coverage to specific team needs.
“It will seem like a very normal MSG production,” Filippi said.
Like the NBA, the NHL has constructed TV-friendly in-arena setups that mostly avoid views of empty seats.
The league also will seek to replicate sounds of an arena atmosphere, including sirens, music and crowd noises. The mission is relative normalcy.
“We don’t think fans are suddenly going to say, ‘Wow, this is weird,’” Filippi said. “The goal is for somebody to put it on starting at 8 [on Wednesday], and it’s a hockey game.”
For both the qualifying round and “first” round that follows, assuming the Rangers or Islanders advance, MSG will carry all games other than those NBC chooses for its national broadcast channel.
NBC and its cable outlets are the national home for playoff games in the United States, and its announcers, too, will not operate as normal.
For the qualifying round, the only NBC announcer on site in Edmonton will be Pierre McGuire, with a complete crew featuring John Forslund, Mike Milbury and Brian Boucher in Toronto.
Doc Emrick, the network’s lead play-by-play man, will work out of a studio in his home near Detroit, while all other NBC announcers, analysts and reporters will be at the network’s studios in Stamford, Connecticut. (That includes Burke and Albert, who also will work some games for NBCSN.)
As the rounds go by, more announcers will be on site. Emrick, 73, said it has not been determined when or even if he will transition to an arena, even for the Cup Final.
Emrick is not concerned with the mechanics of calling games off monitors, which he has done before, even with his analysts many miles away.
“There is an adjustment to it, but it is the same game and we are seeing it on really clear screens,” he said. “So we’ll just do our best to bring the game to people.
“It will be exciting and I’m sure I’ll be jazzed up about bringing emotion to it. I think just watching the game will do that. Otherwise, I can’t predict how all of that will be, but I’m pretty excited about the possibility.”
Executive producer Sam Flood said the production will use enhanced audio – with a five-second delay to protect against overly colorful language – and up to 30 cameras, including a “JitaCam” that hangs beneath the scoreboard and offers a 360-degree view of the ice.
“I really believe our fans are just absolutely wanting to see hockey again,” NBC analyst Ed Olczyk said. “We’re going to give it to them . . . We’ve worked long enough together where I really believe that we’ll be able to have the same cadence and symmetry once we get through a game or two and I think it will just be like we’re sitting right [next to each other].
“I don’t think anybody will notice, really, to be honest with you.”