Frozen Four Follows Final Four to Detroit

In 2009, Detroit’s Ford Field was transformed from the football home of the Detroit Lions to the basketball home of the Final Four. This year, Ford Field will undergo another transformation when the Frozen Four heads to town to crown the NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey champion. The tournament, which began on March 26, culminates on April 10, when ESPN will televise the championship game. Turning a football field into a hockey arena, however, has taken some creative planning by the broadcaster, the NCAA, and the host facility.

“I think it’s great that they’ve put the Frozen Four into a building like Ford Field,” says John Vasallo, senior coordinating producer for ESPN. “It’s just been a pretty big operational challenge for us.”

East-West vs. North-South
That challenge begins with placing the ice inside the building. Instead of running the rink east to west, parallel with the football field (the way the basketball court was laid down for the Final Four), the ice will be placed north to south, parallel to the end zone.

“It comes down to how you can get players on and off the surface quickly,” explains Bryan Bender, director of broadcasting and production at Ford Field. “It made sense to keep it close to the tunnel that we have, so the Zamboni can come down the tunnel and go right onto the ice, instead of having to go to the other side of the field. The same goes for the players’ walking to the locker room.”

Twenty-two rows of temporary stands will be set up in a field riser to the east of the ice, and a black curtain will hang behind the riser to enclose the rink. The ice is the same system that the NHL used for the Winter Classic hockey game played outdoors at Boston’s Fenway Park on New Year’s Day.

“It will be interesting to see what the feel is for the fans,” Bender says, “to see if they get the feel that it’s an ice arena or if they still feel that it’s a large stadium.”

Small Rink, Big Building
For the fans at home, ESPN will do its best to create an intimate hockey atmosphere.

“The biggest challenge is that it’s a hockey game in a really big facility,” says Steve Cozort, senior director of studio and remote operations for ESPN Regional Television. “We are bringing in camera cranes to act as our primary camera positions, which is unique.”

The cranes will sit on field level and get high enough to serve as ESPN’s main cover cameras. The cameras will shoot from the temporary-stands side, which presents quite a wiring challenge, considering that the temporary stands sit in the middle of the football field at about the 40-yard line.

“We have lots of network and in-house drops for cable around the building,” Bender says. “But, for hockey, you have to adjust because our ice surface is going north-south and our football field goes east-west.”

Still, Cozort says, the Ford Field is well-supplied with camera drops, and his longest camera or audio run is no more than 150 ft.

Redo the Replay
A camera challenge that was not easily solved was the fixed goal cameras that the NCAA requires to hang over both goals for replay purposes. The NCAA mandates that all goals be reviewed, but, the way the ice is laid out, there are no fixed positions at Ford Field that would allow cameras to be hung overhead.

“There’s no cabling or connection for us in the middle of the stadium,” Bender says. “We would have had to have a rigger come in to hang the units and cable them back. But, once the units and power supplies are in the air, you can’t adjust them if you have any technical issues, so that was not ideal.”

Instead, the NCAA, ESPN, and Ford Field decided on a wireless three-camera system, the same one that has been used for the Winter Classic. That system puts two fixed cameras in the goal nets and a glass-mounted camera behind each goal.

“You basically have a triangle look at the goal every time the puck crosses the line,” Bender explains.

Adds Vasallo, “That was something we spent a long time with the NCAA on. We made sure that there were redundant systems in place since they didn’t have the go-to angle that they usually use in NHL and college arenas.”

A Backwards View
A total of 14 cameras will be used for the production, and ESPN will bring in 12 effects microphones to go in and around the ice. ESPN’s announce team will call the game from the permanent stands, opposite where ESPN’s game cameras are, but both announcers are prepared for that challenge.

The Ford Field in-house production team, however, will have its hands full if they use any ESPN replays for the video-board production.

“Our in-house cameras will be on the opposite side of the network cameras,” Bender explains. “If we go to replays from network, it may look a little wacky because of the reverse angle. We may even have to put up a ‘reverse angle’ graphic.”

First Time on a Field
Ford Field has hosted a variety of events in the past, but the 2010 Frozen Four will be the arena’s first experience with hockey. The biggest challenge thus far? Timing.

“Once ESPN shows up on Tuesday, you don’t have a lot of time before the first game on Thursday,” Bender says. “There’s just not a lot of juggle time. But, from our perspective, it’s a neat event to have and something we’re looking forward to. It will be interesting for us to see how hockey plays inside of a football stadium. Right now, it’s an unknown.”

The national championship will air Saturday April 10 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN HD, ESPN360.com, and ESPN Mobile.

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