At the Rink: Chicago Blackhawks Leverage Relationship With NBA’s Bulls for Fan-Less Show at United Center

Bulls’ Michelle McComas provides helping hand this season

The National Hockey League was the last of the four major U.S. sports leagues to host a non-bubble regular season. As fans gradually make their return to the seats, how is that affecting in-venue productions and digital content? Similar to At the Ballpark, On the Gridiron, and On the Hardwood, At the Rink looks at the operations of NHL organizations to see how they are coping with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and adapting to a sense of normalcy.

The Chicago Blackhawks are currently outside the top four teams in the NHL’s Central Division. Despite a late-season push to grab a playoff spot, the franchise is maintaining its legacy of excellence inside the historic United Center. Without fans in attendance, its production team is receiving tidbits of knowledge from a fellow tenant, the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.

“They got a head start on us, with their season starting a bit earlier,” says Michael Horn, senior manager, game presentation, Chicago Blackhawks. “We’ve always had a great relationship, but it has been nice to have a soundboard before we got things started.”


Valued Relationship: Chicago Bulls Staffers Help Generate Ideas, Provide Advice

Mike Horn sits in the upper level of the United Center. (All photos: Chicago Blackhawks Photos)

A lot of professional-sports teams have their own home venue. While that may be a blessing in terms of creating dedicated shows, there is a downside: having to curate ideas without external assistance. At the United Center, however, the Blackhawks and Bulls mutually benefit since they’re painting on the same blank canvas. The Bulls’ go-to production contact is Senior Director, Entertainment and Events, Michelle McComas, and Horn, having worked as a backup staffer for the Bulls crew, has great rapport with McComas and her team.

“I used to be the backup ClickFX operator for the Bulls,” says Horn, “so I’m very familiar with working with Michelle. Whether it’s discussions about lighting in the venue or different ways to utilize mascots, we talk on a weekly basis, and we spoke to her before we got into the building. We have a really fluid working relationship, where members from both teams are able to make the conversion process a lot easier.”

Over nearly an entire regular NHL season, Horn and McComas have conversed about production elements on numerous occasions. Since the Bulls were the first to grace the floor at United Center, McComas has a bit more experience with videoboard shows produced in the era of COVID-19. One of the biggest pieces of advice she offered was related to “filler” time, which doesn’t occur when no fans are in the seats. After trailblazing productions for the one-year old centerhung, the Bulls team’s efforts have provided a blueprint for Horn and company.

“She mentioned that, sometimes, it feels like you’re not doing as much as you would have in the past,” Horn says. “We had to understand that it’s okay at some points to let the game breathe and support it, as opposed to being more of a driving force.”

Season of Challenges: Team Pushes on Without Fan Feedback

Without fans in the stands, the production team is generating fake crowd noise.

Despite a treasure trove of advice, the Blackhawks production crew has had challenges to overcome. Besides the feeling that they’re not doing enough, the crew is trying to overcome the absence of the passion generated by an in-person crowd.

“The biggest challenge has been not having the instant reaction,” says Horn. “We’ve been telling ourselves that we still have to do [the videoboard show], even if it’s being seen only by the players on the ice. We still have to put the same effort into it and trust that the work is doing well.”

To combat these obstacles, Horn and company have developed a three-pronged approach. First, the in-venue staff is providing an ample backdrop for the linear broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago. For example, intermissions are points in the game when lights in the lower bowl typically are dimmed or extinguished, but the venue’s operations team is keeping those bulbs on for the on-air team. Second, in-arena elements like videoboard prompts and entertainment are still being played to maintain a “normal” atmosphere. And third, Horn wants his team to enjoy the moment and bring out fun and personality whenever possible.

“Even though there aren’t 20,000 or more fans in here cheering them on,” he explains, “we’re still trying to pump the players up and give them that home-ice feel. It has been challenging, but we’re trying to have fun, which has definitely brought our group closer together.”

The Ones Who Get It Done: Shoutout to Blackhawks’ Production Team

Inside the United Center control room

In the Windy City, the Blackhawks production team has leveraged all available resources to continue its stellar record of in-venue productions, and, with four remaining home games, it’s a mad dash to the finish line to complete the regular-season schedule. That goal will be achieved through a team effort from all involved, including Senior Director, Scoreboard Operations, Sergio Lozano; Creative Producer/Editor, Scoreboard Operations, Lina Martino; Manager, Scoreboard Operations, Susan Brooks; Senior Director, Media Relations, John Steinmiller; Media Relations Manager Mike Horan; Director, Event Marketing, Brian Howe; Media Relations Coordinator Will Chukerman; NBC Sports Chicago Producer Mitch Kerzner; and In-Game Music/ClickFX Operator Ryan Curtin.

“Coming into the season,” says Horn, “I told my wife that this season was going to test all of our abilities. But it has been the opposite. It has been great to see everyone pull together and get all-in on this project.”

The Chicago Blackhawks will host the Florida Panthers at United Center on Thursday, April 29 at 8 p.m. ET.

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