Watching hockey on TV is one of the easiest ways to access the sport we love. At the flick of a switch, hockey fans across North America can watch games wherever they take place, at whatever time, on delay or live. Whether it be preseason or a tournament final, if it’s hockey at the elite level in North America, you can watch it with relative ease. It has never been easier to access the sport we love.
However, in order to bring that game from across the country or even the world to you at the touch of a button, the work involved is an undertaking on a scale few people can appreciate unless they’re given a glimpse into it.
This piece aims to do that.
Last weekend, the NCAA Friendship Four took place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and I was lucky enough to be heavily involved in the production that saw it shown across the US on NESN and ASN affiliates, across Canada on TSN, and on a total of 68 channels across North America, as well as on the BBC and Premier Sports in the UK and Ireland – a truly massive undertaking.
As the graphics person, I was responsible for making sure the right graphic appeared on the screen at the right time, as well as running the scoreboard and clock, as well as being part of a larger broadcast team of 12 people – made up of a director, a replay technician/broadcast engineer, and myself on graphics in the broadcast truck outside, and two presenters/commentators, seven cameramen & a floor manager/rinkside interviewer in the rink itself, for a team of thirteen people.
We combined to broadcast four live NCAA games – more than 12 hours of live hockey over two days. For those six hours you saw live each day, there was four days of work you didn’t see.
The broadcast started with the team travelling to the SSE Arena in Belfast (still known locally by its old name of “the Odyssey") on the Wednesday before the tournament.
Arriving at the rink at 6pm (all times GMT) on Wednesday, after a twelve hour journey by van and ferry, the crew then proceeded to put in place around four miles of cable around the arena to link 12 camera positions into the broadcast truck (two at centre-ice, filming from the studio for the main broadcast shot (one for wide shots, one for tight or zoomed shots on the action) and one for the presenters in the studio, a replay camera behind both goals at ice level, two fixed cameras high above the goals on the gantry looking straight down for those overhead shots, one in a corner at each end of the rink, a roaming interview camera for coach interviews, one focused solely on the scoreboard and clock as a reference for those in the truck, and a super slow-motion camera for replays.
Along with this came all the links to send the sound from all these cameras into the truck along with the microphones, headsets (called Talkbacks) for all personnel to remain in contact with each other and the directors, and monitors in the penalty box to provide video replays for the referees. This kit filled two large vans, and all has to be unloaded and set up by hand, then tested – a task which took the team Wednesday evening and all of Thursday to accomplish, spending around 20 hours at the arena in total. This can take you to some pretty interesting places.
Alongside this, the temporary studio for the weekend needs to be set up in the studio/commentary position, which in this arena, as in many with non-permanent broadcast stations, is in an executive box that doubles as a press area, and is not as glamorous or large as you might expect:
On the Friday this all has to be tested again. Every camera, every mic, every cable. The link is set up to the receiving TV channels and their liaison in North America (there were 68 receiving, going through one central network contact) and the time ticks towards showtime inexorably as the checks are made and remade.’
The graphic software is pre-prepared and bespoke, with graphics provided for every broadcast, although the team sheets are loaded into the software and any changes are made by hand. While this is going on the presenters are preparing their show, any last minute hitches are being fixed, and the nervous energy floating around the arena is palpable, with team members running back and forth, constant chatter over the intercom, and making sure everyone is in their places half an hour before scheduled broadcast time.
When the broadcast begins (timed to the second by the receiving TV channel controller, who may be across an ocean or on the other side of the city) the director has to control the inputs and efforts of every single one of his crew as they film and broadcast the action, acting as a general for an army who are all incredibly focused on their very specific roles. There is constant chatter over the intercom as the director is calling shots, issuing instructions to cameramen, asking for graphics to be placed ready for him to bring up on screen, and all the other minutiae of a broadcast. You only hear the voices of the PBP and colour guy and maybe the studio panels on screen, but behind them is a constant wave of sound as the floor manager relays penalties, goals and information on what's going on in the rink to the people in the truck, the graphics person checks the information for his graphics when goals and penalties occur, the cameramen are being issued instructions and relaying information, the presenters are confirming what's going to run in the next segment of the show during every commercial break, and in the truck the broadcast engineer is preparing replays of every even half-interesting event, watching for shots the director may have missed to get the best replay, and communicating with the broadcast controller on the receiving channel for timings on every commercial break, every in-game pre-recorded segment, and all are reacting to a game that's flowing back and forth and changing on a dime.
Now imagine this pace running non-stop for three hours, pausing for an hour, then restarting all again for another game. Then imagine this happening not just one day, but two in a row, with the same team working anything up to 12 hour days and knowing that any mistake they make could potentially be seen by millions of people.
That's what a live hockey broadcast is like. It is a group of incredibly focused people concentrating for hours at a time without a break (even the players might get a shift off). It's a task that requires every single person to come together and play their role perfectly while having absolute trust in everyone else to play theirs.
Occasionally, like any job, there's the chance to have a little gentle fun at a workmate's expense, too. Here is my colleague Jono, a hockey writer in the UK and floor manager for the weekend, narrowly avoiding becoming a viral sensation on semi-final day.
And this is what all that work produces. Here are the highlights from the Friendship Four Final, the last three hours of twelve hours of live broadcast my team did that weekend:
That four minutes is the culmination of many, many hours of dedication of hard work by a team you'll likely never see on camera - a team as dedicated and hard working as the players they broadcast - and a team as proud of doing their job right and bringing the NCAA Friendship Four to the world as the Vermont players were to win it. A team who, after the players had left the ice, spent another four hours taking down everything they had built and loading it back into the vans before a twelve-hour journey home - some of the unsung heroes of the game
Next time you watch a hockey broadcast, spare a thought for the people behind the camera and their efforts...there are thousands of people whose pride and hard work culminates in one goal-that of you, watching the game you love, without having to leave your front room.
People who the vast majority of hockey fans will never see.