In Final NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Outing, NBC Sports’ Ops Team Aims To Go Out on a High Note
NBC’s 16-year run with NHL will end after this season
With the NHL set to depart NBC Sports after more than a decade and a half, the Peacock’s sports-production and operations teams enter this year’s NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs looking to cement their legacy. NBC has served as the league’s primary U.S. rightsholder since 2005, but, next year, the NHL rights will shift to ESPN and Turner Sports. Nonetheless, NBC’s remote-operations team remains immensely proud of all they’ve accomplished over the past 16 years and is set to finish up with a win.
“Over the last decade, our entire NBC team can be most proud of the significant ratings growth and the fact that we have changed the way hockey games are broadcast on television by introducing new production and technical elements that have set the new standard,” says NBC Sports VP, Remote Operations and EHS, James Stuart. “Is it bittersweet that NHL has two new partners next year? Yes. But no one on the NBC team is hanging their head. We know we have done, and will continue to do, all we can to put the best product on the air, present the NHL in the best light, and leave the viewers wanting more.”
Constant Change: NBC Continues To Manage Scheduling, COVID Challenges
After a regular season fraught with COVID-related schedule changes that had NBC’s operations in constant scramble mode, the team will have to be on their toes once again for the Playoffs. The divisional brackets will begin at different points over the next week: the U.S.-based East, Central, and West divisions begin on May 15-17; while the Canada-based North division is expected to get rolling on May 19 and 20, due to COVID delays. It still remains to be determined on how the league with handle the travel of Canadian and American teams across the border when the playoffs advance to the semifinal round.
“Schedule adjustments throughout the year, during a time when so many are working from home, did make this season a grind for many of us,” says Laura Cronin, director, NHL operations, NBC Sports Group. “I am very proud of the work ethic of our team to be working multiple games in a row and never allowing the quality to slip. Playoff dates and the start of the Playoffs being impacted by the divisions’ ending at different times has worked in our favor for the East and will be a last-minute push for the West.”
Throughout the regular season, NBC deployed full onsite productions; REMI operations using RSN-produced clean feeds and its Stamford, CT, broadcast center; and a mix of the two.
“This season has been like no other,” notes Cronin. “We came up with multiple plans to reduce our footprint onsite due to COVID-19 and still produce the same quality show that we’ve always done. The biggest change is producing so many games out of our Stamford facility and bringing back feeds and working through technical roadblocks to get it all working smoothly.”
Early in the season, the production-ops team had a multitude of workflows to produce a game, but, by midseason, NBC had narrowed that down to three models because having so many variations wasn’t sustainable for an entire season. In addition, fans’ gradual return to arenas has presented further challenges for camera positioning and workflow during setup.
“COVID-19 protocols, both in Stamford and in all of the arenas, have definitely impacted us,” says Cronin, adding, “Not to any detriment. It just takes a few more steps to complete tasks that would normally be second nature. That can be frustrating, but our team handled it professionally and the product never suffered. We remain just as vigilant to the safety and wellbeing of our crew, adhering to all health and safety protocols in place through the end of the Stanley Cup Final.”
Game Ops: NBC To Rely on Host Feeds in Round 1, Take the Reins in Round 2
For all Round 1 games, NBC will be taking the host feeds provided by the RSNs and Sportsnet and supplementing them with its own graphics, split feeds, and unilateral cameras from site (as was the case for non-exclusive NBC regular-season broadcasts). For two of these first-round series, NBC will also have a truck side-by-side with the home shows producing its own show.
Three announcers will be onsite for each of the East series, as well as for the games in which NBC has a truck onsite. All other opening-round games will be called from Stamford, with most of the talent going back and forth between the road and the broadcast center.
NBC will have 10 manned and 10 unmanned cameras for the two Round 1 series with its onsite truck, three manned and five unmanned for the RSN-host-feed shows. NBC will also add a Sony HDC-4800 high-speed camera for both Rounds 1 and 2.
For all following rounds, NBC will serve as the primary broadcaster for all U.S.-based games and take feeds from Sportsnet for the Canadian games since NBC’s crew is currently not permitted to cross the border. Two or three NBC announcers will be onsite for each of the U.S. series Round 2, and the Canadian games will be called from Stamford. Announcers will also be onsite for the third round and the Stanley Cup Final, but plans are still to be determined for games in Canada.
NBC will deploy 20 cameras (10 manned/10 unmanned) for Round 1 productions, 22 (12/10) for Round 3, and 30 (15/15) for the Stanley Cup Final (on par with the 2019 Final).
Data Tsunami: NHL Player-, Puck-Tracking System Drives Enhanced Graphics
The 2021 regular season marked the first in which the league’s player- and puck-tracking system had been installed in all 31 arenas. NBC, which had full control on exclusive national games and was able to supplement the clean feed with PPT features for games produced in Stamford, worked with the NHL throughout the season to make more tracking data available to the broadcast.
“As with many new systems, introducing the system has had its challenges,” says Cronin. “It is a system driven by the league and has had some kinks to work out along the way. That said, the quality of the product definitely enhances the game as you watch.”
On Wednesday Night Hockey last week, NBC debuted a new scorebug that NHL on NBC producer Stephen Greenberg notes is data-centric and embraces the wealth of information the tracking system provides. In addition, the NHL has teamed up with AWS to debut advanced Shot and Save Analytics during the Playoffs.
“We’re always looking to innovate our production efforts to improve the viewing experience for all hockey fans,” says Greenberg. “The NHL continues to make more game and tracking data available, which allows us to document and highlight key storylines within each game. Our goal was to create a scorebug that accounted for this new data and to present it in the clearest way without compromising the product on the ice.”
Reflecting on a Legacy: Looking Back at 16 Years of NHL on NBC
As NBC enters its final Stanley Cup Playoffs run, there is much to reflect on and celebrate from 16 years on the ice — especially the broadcaster’s role in making the Winter Classic the gem of the NHL regular season.
“We are part of the team that produced the most-watched NHL game on record and the most-watched regular-season games on record,” says Stuart. “Being a part of the Winter Classic and seeing how it has become an event that brings in new viewers and fans every year has provided lifetime memories for all who were a part of the game. The NHL on NBC team serves at the pleasure of the NHL and its fans/viewers. It has been our privilege to do so over the life of our contract with the NHL.”