Hockey on television, at least the discussion of it, is often so caught up on the business side of things. We get into how television ratings are doing, who’s televising the games, how much the games are being covered by other networks. What we don’t talk about much is the technical side of it, which I think is a bit of a shame, because it’s an interesting process.
I attended the NCAA’s Frozen Four — the national championships of college hockey — this weekend, and was graciously given a lot of access to ESPN’s crew televising the game. The leader has broadcast every Frozen Four since 1995, and the championship game since the inception of the network (this season, the company’s college hockey coverage included a package of Big Ten games).
As we all know, hockey and ESPN are a touchy subject for a lot of fans, but the people who work these games both love the sport and have worked hockey telecasts throughout their lives. The people shooting the games are mostly locals who usually work on Flyers telecasts. A crew of between 50-60 people helps put on one of the biggest hockey events of the year.
Over the course of my two days in Philadelphia, we covered multiple subjects regarding both the technical aspects of broadcasting (specifically, how the network handled Justin Holl’s last-second goal in the semifinals last Thursday) as well as some hotter topics. I spoke to at least a dozen people, but the principal people you’ll hear from are:
Bob Frattaroli - Director of all ESPN’s Frozen Four telecasts, who also has years of NHL experience.
Joe Taylor - Producer of all ESPN’s Frozen Four telecasts.
John Vassallo - Senior coordinating producer, overseer of the entire 50-60 person crew.
John Buccigross – Lead play-by-play man for college hockey on ESPN, SportsCenter host and former host of NHL2Nite.
Barry Melrose - Frozen Four color analyst, NHL analyst for ESPN since 1996.
Quint Kessenich - reporter, who moved in between the benches permanently for Saturday’s championship game. Covers multiple sports for ESPN.
You might think it’s fair to wonder how many people are ready to go for a hockey production at ESPN based on the logistics that they only cover a total of about 25 games, with 15 of them in a span of two weeks. It’s one of the first questions I asked director Bob Frattaroli, producer Joe Taylor and senior coordinating producer John Vassallo on Friday.
As it turns out, quite a few. Of the approximately 65 people from the network who work on the Frozen Four, “it’s a combination” of people who are specifically picked because of their hockey acumen and those who work all kinds of events for ESPNU, said Vassallo. “I think an event like this, where you don’t have a regular season lead-up — I mean, we did a small Big Ten package — but what I like to do with this package is to mesh people who know the sport with talent at certain positions. You want guys that know hockey.”
“The bar is very high,” he admits, because of the crew (which also worked the regional tournament that Buccigross, Melrose and Kessenich called) and because of the connotation that some people place the very idea of hockey and ESPN in. “You almost feel like you’re being scrutinized because you’re not the regular guy,” added Frattaroli. “We’re the network of record for the biggest college hockey games of the year, you’ve got to step up,” Vassallo agreed.
“We say the biggest mandate is accuracy in everything we do. Don’t miss action, document the game. Everything else is an extra.”
The fact that ESPN has many hockey lovers both in front of and behind the camera is something Melrose reaffirmed when I spoke to him and Buccigross from their booth on Saturday before Union and Minnesota’s title showdown. “We have a lot of hockey fans at ESPN, everyone thinks that everyone hates hockey at ESPN, that’s not the case at all. We have a lot of people who love hockey and want it on more so we keep fighting behind the scenes.”
About 15-20 people are located in the traditional production trucks with Frattaroli and Vassallo outside the arena. A smaller, separate crew works out of a separate truck to produce ESPN3′s Surround coverage. Though it’s been used to different effect on various sports, for the Frozen Four it produced a separate broadcast that was done entirely from the robotic cameras located at ice level from the penalty boxes and behind the nets, all with natural sound and no broadcasters.
The games and studio coverage are produced not in Bristol, but at ESPNU’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. Those studios produce all of ESPN’s NCAA championship coverage, aside from the women’s college basketball tournament and the College World Series. The studio will also house the SEC Network.
A few of the camera people work with Frattaroli on multiple events across sports, but have been with him for the Frozen Four the past few years. The balance of them work both Philadelphia Flyers and used to shoot (AHL) Philadelphia Phantoms games as well. “The local guys here are a really highly skilled group of guys, they know their hockey cold, and they love it.”
The crew began work on the Tuesday before Thursday’s semifinal opener, setting up a ton of cables and audiovisual material, as well as scouting locations for cameras and microphones. On Wednesday, Taylor is managing graphics people on things like highlights and flashbacks to past tournaments that might be used, while Tuesday’s work on the ice and in the building is being finished. Team meetings also occur.
There’s also a camera set up to shoot a specific list of no less than seven “star” players on each team. “He’s supposed to be following them at all times. Sometimes he can make a decision [on who to shoot] if none of those star players are out, I trust that camera guy,” notes Frattaroli, who also sounded a bit like a coach in terms of how that evolves. “If someone’s out there dogging a shift, go shoot someone who’s having a good shift, he’s just running through ISOs all day.”
“Inside the Glass”
During Thursday night’s semifinals, Quint Kessenich — a lacrosse analyst who works as a reporter for football, basketball and wrestling among many others — spent time in the NBC-invented “Inside the Glass” position between the benches. He chose to work the entire championship game there, mostly out of convenience. He was originally located in the hallways of Wells Fargo Center, which was a problem.
“My issue on these hallways,” Kessenich told me on Saturday from his position between the benches, “being short and they have so many managers in front of me, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear. This is definitely the spot, other than my life being in jeopardy.”
I’ve never really gotten into the details of this job with anyone, much less someone new at it, so the insight he provided into the gig was interesting. “The linesmen come over and I can ask them question. They come over during all the TV timeouts to get drinks, so I can communicate with them or ask them questions, and during video reviews as well.”
The only challenge is the ice, which is obviously much slipperier when it’s been flooded and zamboni’d than at the end of a period. “I had to walk over very carefully,” Kessenich said. “The kids were laughing at me, and also squirting water on the ice to make it more difficult.”
A college hockey buzzer beater
“Sometimes you feel something’s coming,” joked Frattaroli. “I don’t think any of us saw that coming.”
“We were looking for three overtimes,” added producer Joe Taylor.
The crew had a game plan ready to go, according to Frattaroli. “When the first goal was scored (with about nine minutes left in the third period), I told them ‘this is a one goal game, guys, so when this goal gets scored, we wanna play it like this.’ It’s not like the previous game (a 5-4 win by Union that was more or less decided with time to spare, save a very late Boston College goal) where some of the things we do in terms of execution and cover a goal… there’s a variety of ways to do it.”
“We’re only getting one. I said that to the crew with about six minutes left. Then we got two,” as North Dakota tallied late, and then Holl got his incredible first goal of the season with 0.6 seconds remaining.
Despite the surprise, the crew is ready for such a situation. “Every one second and every one minute for what’s going on on the ice, what’s important to replay, what I think might be an interesting shot if the puck goes into the net.” Examples would be of the classic angle of a penalized player leaving the penalty box after the opposing team has scored a goal on his infraction, or the shot of the annoyed coach who’s team has just been scored upon.
The crowd also played into what they did throughout the game. “The vibe in the building was much more energetic, much more engaged, so I’m likely to take out a ‘hero shot’ (code for a player or coach celebrating) or a ‘goat shot’ (obviously, the opposite of that) and replace those with crowd shots. The crowd’s here right now, and they’re really fired up, different than an NHL crowd would respond, but that’s how we handled it for that goal.”
One of the most important factors behind the goal is completed well in advance: ensuring that the camera shot of the scoreboard clock syncs up with a replay, meaning that it can be counted on in review to determine whether the goal should’ve counted or not. “We could’ve thrown every piece of equipment at this game and we would have not defined it,” said Vassallo. “[Frattaroli] and the technical director make sure that happens, [Taylor] knows where it is, and then it’s about execution.”
ESPN brings in that camera angle with fairly cheap cameras, and actually put two different angles with those clocks embedded. It was almost eerie how prepared they were. “We went and checked out with a couple of our technical people before the game, and prepared to have both the overhead camera with the clock on it, and our primary game camera (the traditional wide shot of the rink) with the clock on it, and it all matched, it was done correctly.”
For Buccigross, whose call made the rounds on SportsCenter, and as he noticed, all over Twitter. “You can see the reaction and the emotion, just amazing how much hockey means to Minnesota. And people were so nice about the call, and watching the game, Barry and I on the broadcast.”
“That’s something that they’ll play, and that YouTube clip will be thought about forever. You’re now a part of Minnesota hockey lore for life. To be a part of that, as a broadcaster, it’s really cool.”
I asked Vassallo, Taylor and Frattaroli on Friday what they would have prepared for the various situations that would occur on Friday. For the eventual champions, Union, it was seen as the start of a new hockey tradition. “It’s kind of what they’ve done with their program,” says Taylor, “they came from nowhere, turned it around and are starting their own legacy and we have sound to support that.”
Union, while only a small, liberal arts school, was not something that caught the ESPN crew off-guard, as they’d been working with them for the past few years. “The first time, Union kinda caught us by surprise,” said Taylor. “But we’ve had them the last three years, so we know [head coach Rick] Bennett, and we know the team, and it’s a great story.”
Star cameras were dedicated to players like Shayne Gostisbehere. In fact, shots devoted to players like him are taken from the point where they get off the bus at the arena. “Sometimes the network will ask us for what we call an advancer, so we’re going to provide that and start selling those stars,” says Frattarroli.
“That’s what happened with [Boston College forward, Hobey Baker Award winner and now current Calgary Flame] Johnny Gaudreau. The show that was on before us asked if we could provide a little something. We had, and we thought of it an hour earlier, shots of him getting ready in the locker room.”
All the while, the truck is preparing graphics, B-roll footage of the city, special add-ons to replays and a ton of other things. The shots you see of ice being carved into the shape of the NCAA trophy? That was the work of one man, who planned it out over months and shot it over a day or two in New York City.
I asked the crew towards the end of the conversation if they had any ways to improve hockey on television. I honestly expected some long spiel about how that game doesn’t televise well still. Something that would sound detrimental to hockey’s appeal.
Nope. Really, for the entire crew, it was only that they wanted more access to the players, and not anything that would really radicalize the game. As Taylor puts it, “it’s a tug-of-war of not wanting to do things that are different for the sake of being different, like what’s really going to make it more telegenic in an authentic way.”
“If we had the keys to the kingdom, it would be access. Mics on player, mics on coaches.” All three agreed an intriguing idea might be to completely remove advertising and make the boards clear on the near side camera angle.
However, the thing I learned most during my weekend is that the crew has a simple idea for how the game should look, and how fans want to see it, and that they executed it to the best of their abilities. “The way the coverage is set up, the coverage is the puck,” sums up Frattarroli. “Only one camera out of all the ones we use isn’t focused on it.”