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Return to play: how will NHL games look, sound and feel once they come back?

Should NHL games return to close out 2019-20, they will do so with no fans in arenas at first. How will that affect the game strategically and aesthetically for the players? How will the broadcast presentation change?
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

It’s the third period of a one-goal game late in the 2019-20 season with a playoff spot at stake. The trailing team pulls the goalie. The coach calls a timeout. He starts drawing up a play and prepping six skaters to send over the boards. He glances down the bench to see the other team’s coach, craning his neck toward him, hanging on every word.

The arena is dead silent. It’s empty, with no fans. There’s no music playing. And, in a crucial part of this contest, the opposing team can hear every sentence uttered during this timeout.

That scenario is a stripped-down version of what the NHL’s Return to Play Committee has begun envisioning for whenever the league returns from its COVID-19 imposed shutdown, which went into effect March 12. It’s a virtual guarantee that world health officials insist the resumptions of pro sports leagues begin with empty venues, and which will create some unprecedented conditions. Hockey games, for instance, will look and feel like practices or glorified shinny. How, then, will the players competing have to tweak their strategic approaches? And how will the games be presented to fans watching the broadcasts?

The Columbus Blue Jackets were one of two NHL teams that had already announced plans to play with no fans before the league shut down, so the organization, from the top down to its players, had already begun envisioning what to expect. Captain Nick Foligno had discussed it with his teammates.

“We do a lot of scrimmages in training camp, and the amount of things you can hear in the rink is incredible when you only have 20 people sitting in the stands watching,” he said. “I think that part of the game, the strategy side, will be the one that is going to change the most, whether it’s how you're talking to each other on the bench or how you're communicating certain things. Even coaches, they're so used to yelling at you on the benches, because that's the voice they need to have in order for you to hear them. So the comments are going to be like whispers now.”

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe downplays the degree of difficulty the players will face under hear-a-pin-drop conditions. To prepare for them, he’s spoken to coaches who have worked in empty barns, and he points out that he already has experience coaching in quiet from his early days behind a bench at the Jr. A level.

“I think the players themselves would be able to communicate on the ice far better and clearer than they normally could because of the environment,” Keefe said. “There will be an adjustment period, of course, like anytime there's a change, but I think that the players are competitive enough. It would just become the new normal and be hockey.”

Foligno expresses concern about the adrenaline factor, however. And it’s not just about the surge players get from their home crowd, he says. You can draw just as much juice from the hostility of fans in a road game. So how will players dig down and find it? One possible perk of a quiet rink: if players can hear everything, they can hear every chirp from their rivals, so maybe the environment yields a back-and-forth jawing that feels extremely personal and competitive. That might produce an unexpected level of intensity.

It’s more likely, though, that the key to keeping the atmosphere fiery is to simulate most of the normal arena noise. Foligno and Keefe both said they expect the rinks to pump arena music in to be played between whistles just like in any game, and there’s already reason to believe they’re right about that. The San Jose Sharks were the other team that announced plans for games without fans pre-shutdown, as Santa Clara County was among the first areas in the U.S. to begin entering quarantine. As team president Jonathan Becher explains, he and the organization had already drafted a document, roughly 20 pages long, outlining all the hypothetical parameters of holding games without fans in the SAP Center, and the Sharks have continued to tweak it as the months pass. If the NHL ends up going with a plan to have a few hub cities host all the games for a given division, San Jose might not end up being a host, and the Sharks’ season could even be over already depending on which format the league picks to finish out the games, but their findings are a fascinating template for other teams to follow.

Before even considering the idea of pumping in music, the Sharks had to calculate how many people were needed in the building for a bare-minimum skeleton crew to host a game, and the results were astonishing. Just the two teams and coaches alone get you to 50 people, give or take. Then you have to add the team doctors and training staff. The referees and linesmen. The timekeeper. If the hockey ops departments for both teams are allowed to be on hand, Becher estimates that’s already 100 people. And what about security? Even if it’s just external people guarding the building’s main entrances, there are dozens of those in any NHL arena. Food is another factor, Becher says. Typically, the players have the option to eat at the arena, as do other staffers working in the building, so the Sharks considered bringing in boxed dinners – or lunches, depending on whether the new league plan would include afternoon games staggered with night games as multiple teams play in a given venue the same day.

So the number of people needed to make the game happen rises quickly – and that’s before even considering the crews for TV and radio broadcasts, which would be a must, as the league wouldn’t put on games if no one could see them at all. On top of the broadcast teams, “You still need the ice crew, you still need the engineers, you still need the cleaners – we call them building services,” Becher said. “You build up, ‘What does a game look like without fans?’ and you quickly get to 300 people, even though you don’t have full complements of everybody. I’m sure that’s not what people’s mental model was. I’m sure it was ‘just a bunch of players on the ice, that’s it,’ but it’s not true at all.”

Still, the Sharks went the optimist route and decided to project how things would look with all the building staffers plus broadcast crews. The good news, Becher points out, is the broadcasters are already far away from the players for any game, so the physical distancing checks out, and the radio and TV teams could be separated with some in the press box and some in the vacant luxury boxes. The Sharks considered an anthem singer, too, but could probably just play a recording over the PA system. Speaking of which: yes, the plan would be for a fully functional PA announcer, the full in-game music experience, the sponsor signs on the boards and the operation of the electronic scoreboard.

“Our mental model from the beginning is, we wanted the game and all the hockey rituals as players go to seem exactly as it would be for a regular game,” Becher said, “from when they come in through our loading dock, to their normal ritual of how they go to the locker room and what they touch. In our building we have the shark (mouth) they walk through, and we still need to do that.”

So the game, under this proposal, might actually feel a fair amount like the real thing. And the Sharks hadn’t even ruled out creating the crowd experience. In March, their sound engineers were already experimenting with how to pipe recorded crowd noise into the arena. The sound had too much of an echo, but they’ve since pondered a new innovation: streamed sound of actual fans who allow themselves to be mic’d up in their homes. Their reactions would then be mixed and played in the arena simultaneously, seconds after events happen on the ice. So a crushing hit from the home team would produce a roar on the speakers, with fans reacting to the play almost in real time.

But none of these on-ice events can be reacted to, of course, until the broadcast itself gets worked out. And capturing the games will bring a unique set of challenges but also advantages. Once it’s established that the staff can do their business safely, there’s still the matter of where they do it, explains Rob Corte, vice-president, Sportsnet and NHL production. It’s not as simple as parking all the broadcast crew in a separate studio in another building, because, so far, the Sportsnet studio remains closed. In a perfect world, Corte says, Sportsnet hopes to have people calling the games live in the building. It’s too early to know if the production would go forward with skeleton crews or fully staffed. But since the games are a lock to commence with no fans in the stands, broadcasters are already aware of certain benefits that come with all the vacated seats. Typically, cameras sit in fixed positions to ensure they don’t obstruct fans’ view and aren’t obstructed by fans, and those concerns wouldn’t matter anymore.

“By removing fans, you’re absolutely opening up a lot more possibilities for us to move cameras around,” Corte said. “And that means different positions closer to the ice, more robotic cameras…all those things are being discussed. Although we all know how important the fan element is to a broadcast, this situation might enable us to try some things out and find some hidden gems as we work through this.”

Sportsnet is also experimenting with various frills it could add to NHL broadcasts. That could include simulating crowd noise, albeit Corte isn’t sold on that, as it doesn’t feel authentic enough. It could also include amping up the on-ice audio to bring more of an immersive “sounds of the game” experience to audiences. Whatever Sportsnet decides, it’s a safe bet we’ll see a much higher percentage of NHL games available for national audiences, especially if the games are played in staggered blocks at one venue. No fans mean no gate revenues, so the TV audiences become more important than ever.

“The desire to get sports and hockey in particular back on the air is huge among the fan base, and once we do start, we’re going to want to be able to bring as many games as possible to fans, because they’re going to be starved for it,” Corte said.

And the joy the games will bring to the fans is something the players on the ice use as motivation, even if it feels strange playing in empty rinks.

“If we do go back…we're doing something to hopefully help the public and taking a distraction out of what's been a really tough time,” Foligno said. “And obviously, we go back over the right reasons. But then again, you have this opportunity to win a Stanley Cup, which is what we all dream of, and you never want to let that go to waste no matter how weird the circumstances are.”

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