From: Yahoo Sports Canada
By: Greg Wyshynski
His impeccable gray striped suit was augmented by large white goaltending gear, looking very much like an action figure mash-up created by a bored child. Next to him at the makeshift goalie crease inside NHL Network’s studio stood John MacLean, who scored 413 goals in 1,194 NHL games and was trying to put a couple more pucks behind Weekes for demonstration purposes.
“It’s tough to score in this league, but the one way you do score is that you shoot the puck. And I agree with you: Short side shelf is the way to go,” said MacLean, to the goalie, “because ya’ll cheat.”
Said Weekes, who played 348 games with seven different franchises, defiantly: “Well, they all cheat.”
They demonstrate how Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames scored on a bad angle shot against Mike Smith earlier in the week, with Weekes explaining a goalie’s motivation for keeping the short side of the net open and then explaining how a goalie’s technique can determine whether or not it remains open; and with MacLean explaining how this generation of NHL snipers all have shooting coaches to learn how to exploit those vulnerabilities.
It was silly but insightful, a little corny, a little canny. On camera, the segment looked like a million bucks, playing out on a seemingly massive NHL Tonight set. But in this former carpet warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey, the massive set is just one corner of an even more gigantic MLB Network studio where, about an hour earlier, the 2016 MVP Award winners were announced by baseball analysts.
This is what NHL Network does on a nightly basis: Carving out a little piece of “heaven for hockey nerds,” as commentator Brian Lawton called it, from the MLB Network mothership while using its successful template to cover a night’s worth of hockey games with insight, analysis, personality and, above all else, a conversational pace that stands in stark contrast with the brisk coverage of other rights-holders.
“I loved Sportsnet. The thing I didn’t like about it was that you’d have topics, you’d have discussion, but then you’d be in the ‘first inning’ and they were like ‘YOU GOTTA WRAP IT UP!’” recalled Lawton.
“Here, if you want to go, you can go. The available time for you to make a credible point is off the charts here.”
It’s the best hockey coverage you might not be watching. But you should.
In 2015, the NHL announced a six-year deal with MLB Advanced Media. A lot of the hype around the deal surrounded hockey’s digital properties, including a revamp of NHL.com.
But part of that deal was the relocation of NHL Network from a studio in Toronto to the MLB Network compound in Secaucus – which used to house MSNBC – located a short train ride (and taxi ride after that) from Manhattan.
NHL Network shares office space with MLB Network, but has its own production rooms and studios. MLB and NHL eat in the same baseball-themed cafeteria, walk through the same hallways covered in old baseball cards. The room that’s transformed into a giant indoor “rink” for outdoor game coverage is actually ‘Studio 42,’ New Jersey’s most impressive indoor whiffle ball stadium.
Jamie Hersch, a host on NHL Network’s nighttime programs, said the network is trying to emulate what MLB does best. “People are tuning in for the characters,” she said, drawing parallels between guys like Weekes and Mike Rupp with baseball analysts like Harold Reynolds.
“On NHL Tonight, the biggest goal is to make the viewers feel like they’re sitting around watching hockey with their friends,” she said, “except all their friends are super experienced, played the game, can break down players, knows what’s going on with players and how they’re feeling.”
NHL Network has about a dozen rotating analysts and several studio hosts. The variety of voices is one contrast with NBCSN, the NHL’s U.S. cable rights-holder. The other is in the Network’s approach to coverage, which is pitched less to “casual” viewers and more towards the kind of people who would, frankly, search out something called NHL Network on a random weeknight.
“We don’t do ‘this is a puck.’ It’s a pretty intense watch. But if someone is tuning in for the first time, we don’t want to talk over their heads,” said Josh Bernstein, a senior coordinating producer who has attended New York Islanders games going back to before his days at Hofstra.
“One of the great advantages that we have is that we have a lot of time. And once 7 o’clock hits, the gloves are off. There’s no script. If something cool is happening, you’re watching it. You are the remote control hand of the fan.”
Imagine if “Saturday Night Live” had cue cards for the first two sketches and then did improv the rest of the show. That’s pretty much NHL Network after the puck is dropped.
“After the first hour, the rundown goes out the window,” said Hersch.
That’s not to say everyone isn’t prepared for what comes next. The preparatory process begins in the morning, when researchers put together a “bible” for the on-air talent, filled with stories and stats and insight for that evening’s games.
“We’re the editorial producers, trying to ensure the best info gets used on the air,” said Marc Adelberg, a research supervisor whose day begins roughly 10 hours before a single game is played. For example, a conversation between Hersch and Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter goes a level deeper when a researcher producer mentions in her ear his ice time has decreased by about a minute per game under Bruce Boudreau.
As the games progress, they’re being watched by a dozen producers in the main control room, waiting for goals or significant plays that the on-air talent will discuss in real time. They’re literally watching every game, shouting out highlights (“Marner just scored”) and interesting moments (“Scrum in the Blues game”) that will be flagged for future highlights packages.
Stats and graphics, which are curated around the clock, are prepared in another control room. The on-air analysts are looking out for plays to highlight themselves, both in a small studio with a few robotic cameras that you see every night on TV and in a conference room in an adjoining building, where the next shift of talent is preparing to go on the air while munching on dinner. (I highly recommend watching several games with Mike Rupp in a casual setting. He’s a character.)
“They’re very hands on. They do everything but edit the video,” said Bernstein of the analysts.
Then there are the “live looks” into games, as NHL Network turns into NFL RedZone to provide fans without access to the feeds with a prolonged glimpse at a particular matchup.
My theory on the “live looks” has always been that they exist to allow the on-air talent to take a short trip to the bathroom, like when a classic rock station decides to play “Stairway To Heaven” randomly.
I tested my theory with Bernstein.
“Well, we talk over the live looks. So there’s someone not in the bathroom,” he said, with a laugh.
Our conversation with Bernstein is interrupted by a gregarious man in an impeccable gray striped suit.
“We like to keep it informal in here,” says Kevin Weekes, as he leans into me for a hug. (We previously worked together on a video shoot at the Santa Clara outdoor game.)
“Have you gotten a full tour?” he asks.
I relay that I’ve seen plenty, including a clip that Lawton showed me that depicted Weekes doing a rather impressive Brian Lawton impression on-air.
“He did? Now, is he paying you to say it was bad or do I need to pay you to say it was good?” asks Weekes, turning to an NHL Network staffer. “Hey, lemme borrow a twenty so I can make sure it’s good.”
Weekes is, by nearly everyone’s account, one of the nicest guys in the business. “The second he walks into the building, he knows everybody’s name. Every producer, every security guard,” said Bernstein.
And that’s something you feel as you hang around NHL Network: camaraderie. These are people who generally like each other, generally like the work they do, and that’s generally conveyed over the air.
But so is the professionalism behind the scenes, that provides the backbone for the whole operation.
“It’s like a hockey team without a single stick out of place,” said Lawton, former general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Lawton says it’s the little things that matter. Like, for example, having someone to accompany him to the NHL Network studio that’s in another building, but only about 50 yards away.
“I’m not exactly going to get mugged. But there’s always someone there,” he said.
Lawton is one of those analysts who thrives on NHL Network because he’s given the time and latitude to analyze a play or a topic, without a stopwatch running to cut him off. And while the analysis will rarely take the League itself to task, Lawton said it’s a misconception that NHL Network analysts are being micromanaged by the League, or censored for content.
“There’s zero [pressure]. No one has every told me not to say something,” said Lawton. “But I’m cognizant of it. We’re trying to sell hockey.”
And, in the end, trying to sell hockey to an American audience. NHL Network is available in the U.S. only, as Canada has TSN and Sportsnet to fill its game-night needs. While the shift to New Jersey has increased the number of American voices on the network, Hersch says the coverage isn’t beholden to American teams.
“We have that knowledge that we’re not in Canada, but that doesn’t affect what our lead game is. Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are just as important as Sidney Crosby,” she said.
“I’ve noticed that when I go north of the border, I notice the pregame shows are very Canadian-centric. I really do like that we’re trying to be the ‘NHL network’ and cover all 30 teams.”
It’s a tremendous undertaking to do so on a nightly basis. But their enthusiasm for doing so – from on the air to behind the scenes – is infectious inside those blocky, baseball-centric buildings in Secaucus.