Hockey Night in one take

 

It was midway through the second period of Wednesday’s Montreal-Boston game and the Canadiens were on a power play, trying to claw back from a 2-1 deficit. More than one million people across the country were watching on TV, wondering whether the Canadiens could avoid playoff elimination.<br>

 
 
 
 
 

It was midway through the second period of Wednesday’s Montreal-Boston game and the Canadiens were on a power play, trying to claw back from a 2-1 deficit. More than one million people across the country were watching on TV, wondering whether the Canadiens could avoid playoff elimination.

The action on the ice was furious, but things were equally hectic within the Bell Centre. Inside the Hockey Night in Canada production trailer, producer Doug Walton and director John Szpala sat in front of a wall of 22 monitors that showed the play from all angles. It was their job, with a crew of about 40 technicians, cameramen and announcers, to transform on the fly the jumble of images into a seamless broadcast.

“Ready seven. Seven,” Mr. Szpala said, instructing a technician to take the feed from camera seven, giving viewers a close-up of Montreal’s Alex Kovalev losing a puck battle against Boston’s Zdeno Chara. “Ready two. Two.” (Back to the main game camera high above the ice as the Bruins cleared the puck.) “Bruins line change, one,” the director advised another cameraman. “Ready one. One.” (The new penalty-killing unit hit the ice.) “Ready six. Six.” (Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges, seen from ice level, started a rush from behind his net.) “Ready two. Two.” (The main game camera again as the Habs’ Tomas Plekanec moved in and fired a shot.)

The penalty ended, and the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron swept the puck off the boards and down the ice, where Philip Kessel, fresh from the penalty box, grabbed it and beat Canadiens goalie Carey Price on a breakaway.

“Right out of the box. We’ve got it iso’ed,” Mr. Szpala said before the puck had even crossed the line, launching a rapid-fire sequence of images. “Ready six. Six. Right out of the penalty box.” (A shot of Kessel celebrating with teammates.) “Ready three. Three.” (A dejected Hab on the bench.) “Ready six. Six.” (Back to the celebration.) “Ready two. Two.” (Price in front of his net) “Ready silver. Effect silver. Roll silver.” (A replay from a vantage point behind the net. ) “Ready red. Mix red.” (The previously mentioned “iso,” or isolation shot, of Kessel coming out of the penalty box and scoring.) “Ready purple. Mix purple.” (A third perspective of the goal.)

There quickly followed a shot of Kessel on the bench, a tight shot of a glum Canadiens coach Bob Gainey, back to Kessel, then to the main camera just in time for the centre-ice faceoff. From the time Bergeron passed the puck out of his end to the post-goal faceoff, just over a minute had elapsed. Viewers at home had seen the live camera angle switch eight times and three replays.

It’s a long way from the first televised hockey. When the CBC pioneered hockey broadcasting in 1952, there were three overhead cameras, and instant replays had not been invented. In those days, the telecast did not even begin until the second period was underway because of CBC scheduling constraints. Today, it is a constant battle to keep on top of rapidly evolving technology and ever-rising audience expectations. There are robotic cameras in the nets and above the goal as well as on the bottom of the scoreboard. Digital technology allows replays to be shown within seconds. Fans expect clear evidence on every disputed goal, every questionable penalty, and they want it in high-definition. ( Hockey Night in Canada faced a minor revolt last week when Vancouver Canucks fans learned their team’s games in St. Louis would not be in HD. The CBC’s HD truck could not drive from Vancouver to St. Louis in time, and budget cutbacks meant there was no money for a rental. Vancouver businessman Jim Pattison stepped in with a sponsorship at the last minute to ensure Canucks fans would not be deprived.)

Hockey Night in Canada’s executive producer, Sherali Najak, has seen how the business has changed since he joined the show in 1995. “Everything’s faster,” he said. “Obviously the game is faster, but also the expectation of when viewers want to see things is faster. They want to see it right away.” While the accelerated pace of the game affects the coverage, the coverage also has an impact on the game. With so many cameras following the play, infractions away from the puck that in the past might have gone unnoticed can now lead to disciplinary action. “You hear [NHL] hockey operations saying that if we didn’t have so many cameras, people wouldn’t know about suspensions or penalties,” Mr. Najak said.

Inside the trailer, the tension as game time approaches is a bit like that in a dressing room. “I certainly still get butterflies,” said Mr. Walton, 43, a senior producer hired away from rival TSN two years ago. “I can get pretty quiet before the game.” While Mr. Szpala directs the flow of on-ice coverage, Mr. Walton must ensure everything comes together coalesces: what replays to use, when to play pre-packaged graphics that flesh out the game story, when to cut in the tidbits reporter Elliotte Friedman has gleaned from the two dressing rooms, all the time making sure not to miss any action on the ice. “You want to be sure you show everything that’s going to be talked about the next day,” Mr. Walton said.

Mr. Szpala, 51, has been directing hockey broadcasts for 17 years. It is live television, and mistakes are unavoidable, even if most go undetected. “If I make 10 cuts and eight of them are good, that’s not too bad,” he said before the game. “There’s no perfect night in television. There’s no perfect night as a hockey player. There’s no perfect night as an opera singer. You can’t hit every note.”

One of the big stories of the Canadiens’ season was the uneven play of goaltender Carey Price. Just 21 years old and in his second season with the team, he had been dogged by rumours that a newfound taste for the high life had affected his play. Late in the second period, with the Bruins holding a commanding 4-1 lead, Price steered away a harmless long shot from the Bruins, and the Bell Centre crowd let out a mock cheer, a treatment usually reserved for the visiting goalie. Price threw his arms up in the air.

“Let’s see that going to break,” Mr. Walton instructed as the replay technicians pulled up various angles of Price’s gesture. He decided on the silver camera from behind the net. Mr. Szpala talked to Toronto, suggesting they dig up footage of former Habs goalie Patrick Roy making a similar move. The whistle blew, and Mr. Szpala called for a shot of Gainey on the bench, then, “Ready silver. Mix silver. Roll silver,” and the Price reaction was shown as announcer Bob Cole led into a commercial: “Well, it’s all Boston, and Price has had it for tonight, by the look of it.” Capturing the mutual frustration of the fans and their onceworshipped goalie, the image told the story of the home team’s disappointing season.

The crew members are nonpartisan when they’re on the job, hoping only for an exciting game that will keep viewers watching. By the middle of the third period, with the Canadiens still down 41 and the crowd moribund, the energy inside the trailer had also waned. A little like a musical conductor, Mr. Szpala sometimes accentuates his directions with flourishes of his pen. But as the excitement in the arena cooled, so had his gesticulation. The search for interesting storylines continued, however, and when the teams lined up for a faceoff in the Montreal end, something caught his eye.

“Who’s Komisarek yapping at? Lucic. Watch him. Stay with Lucic, stay with Komisarek,” he told his isolation cameramen. Canadiens’ defenceman Mike Komisarek and Bruins forward Milan Lucic had been battling all series and had fought earlier in the game, drawing five-minute major penalties. Mr. Szpala wanted his isolation cameras to follow the pair as the puck moved up the ice. Seconds later, his hunch was rewarded as Komisarek caught Lucic with a high-stick so hard his stick snapped and opened a gash on the Bruin’s cheek.

The director flew into action, showing the pair scuffling from different angles as Mr. Walton sifted through the replays. First a shot of Komisarek jawing at the faceoff circle, then each of the players in isolation as they skated toward the collision, then two additional angles of the highsticking. As the show prepared to go to a commercial, Mr. Szpala cut to a shot of Lucic on the bench, a streak of blood stretching from his cheek to his chin. In a third period that was going to offer no miraculous comeback, no promise of overtime magic, it was the closest thing to hockey gold the producers would be able to mine.

After the teams had exchanged series-ending handshakes and Wednesday’s show wrapped, the trailer, with cameraman Mark Milne at the wheel, headed for Philadelphia so fans watching today’s Flyers-Penguins game will see it in high-definition. The rest of the crew members returned home for a few days to await their second-round assignments. “For your own mental well-being, you have to be a fan,” Mr. Walton said, “because come playoff time, it’s all-consuming.”
 
 
 
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