NHL Tests Foreign Turf

Broadcasters beam North American hockey from Wrigley Field, Stockholm and Prague
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LOS ANGELES In an effort to increase its brand as well as interest in the sport worldwide, the National Hockey League is scheduling games in alternate venues in the United States and overseas.

Last month, the NHL hosted its first two games in the Czech Republic's O2 Arena in Prague and Globen arena in Stockholm, Sweden, upping the ante from its 2007 kickoff at the O2 Arena in London. The league had previously hosted season openers in Tokyo, as well.

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The NHL's second annual New Year's NHL Winter Classic will take place in Wrigley Field in Chicago. Four games were broadcast on the Versus sports cable network in the United States, as well as Canadian broadcast network CBC, which broadcast both games in HD, (Versus aired the second Prague game in hi-def).

"We built a host feed comparable to an Olympics host feed, which allowed the broadcasters to do their own customization of graphics," said John Shannon, senior vice president of broadcasting for the NHL. A contingent of onsite announcers added commentary for their respective non-North American networks. "We brought high definition feeds out of both Prague and Stockholm and used all the audio sub-masters to allow four or five different audio lines to come back to North America for different networks."

NEW COMPETITION

Revenue, attendance and television ratings for the NHL have climbed in the last three seasons by enough to inspire a rival for its global audience: Russia's Continental Hockey League (KHL). Headed by Russian billionaire Alex-ander Medvedev, the ambitious 24-team league has already poached several players from the NHL including New York Rangers MVP Jaromir Jagr.

Both factors have led to a more aggressive outreach from the NHL. In Septem-ber, the league signed a multi-year agreement with Hong Kong's All Sports Network, a new channel from Yes TV, a new Asian regional channel, to broadcast NHL games via all forms of television, including HDTV and IPTV.

"Ice hockey is quite popular in the northern parts of China," said Yes TV CEO Thomas Kressner. ASN will distribute NHL games in Korea during the second year of the deal.

New Year's Day will see the Detroit Red Wings face off against the Chicago Black Hawks at the NHL Winter Classic 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. NBC will provide live broadcast coverage of the game in the United States, and CBC and RDS will televise the event live in Canada. NHL.com will provide extensive digital video coverage.

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New York Rangers' Colton Orr (R) battles for the puck with Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Luis during their NHL ice hockey match in Prague last month. ©Reuters/David W Cerny/Landov

"What a way to start the new year with two of the storied names in hockey playing in one of America's venerable [baseball] stadiums," said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports.

The event will be the second regular-season outdoor NHL game played in the United States. The Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium last New Year's Day (see "When Hockey is (Very) Cool," Feb. 20, 2008). It's the third regular-season outdoor game in league history, (the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium in 2003).

PREPPING WRIGLEY FIELD

"The challenge of a baseball stadium is one thing, the challenge of having such a landmark as Wrigley Field is another—you don't want to go in and not be respectful of the venue," Shannon said. "You don't want to be running cables everywhere [and] we don't want to compromise the viewing sight lines of the 42,000 people there."

The grounds have been surveyed twice and a third was expected in late October or early November.

HD is a shared priority. Last February, Cubs management announced that Chicago would be able to see all of the team's games in HD. The NHL completed its own league-wide upgrade to HD during the 2007/2008 season, with the league supplying high-definition overhead cameras and fast forward equipment.

According to Carl Rice, Wrigley Field's senior director of facility management and information technology, the stadium has not planned any renovations to accommodate the 2009 NHL Winter Classic. Rice was nonplussed that some 40 cameras were used to capture the 2008 event in Buffalo for NBC and the CBC—more than even the 32 estimated by Rice needed to cover a World Series.

"It's not up to Wrigley Field to accommodate the additional cameras—it's up to the NHL and its broadcasting partners to figure out how it all works," he said.

Shannon acknowledged that cabling will have to be added.

"We will have to add certain kinds of cabling to the field level particularly, where we can actually have cameras right at ice level up against the glass," he said. "Both networks will be adding small studios at field level—we'll be placing both of those, I believe, side by side in left field."

The rink itself will be laid out from left to right, cutting across the top of the infield and the lower part of the outfield.

"We'll have a pregame set—I'm sure there'll be a stage for national anthems," said Jeff Simon, NBC sports director. "Last year they had a small rink next to the big rink for kid hockey players to play on before the game and between periods. From what I know, they'll do that again—the exact location of where all that will lay out in the outfield has not been finalized."

A WINTER SPECTACLE

The NHL Winter Classic is as much a spectacle of seasonal conditions and local color as is the game itself. NBC's Simon expected to use airplane coverage and HD slo-mo cameras, as it did last year, plus cameras in the bleachers and a new twist for wireless equipment.

"We'll have one handheld camera in RF to roam anywhere in the stadium and, hopefully, outside the stadium," said Simon. "The buildings behind the right field fence are all owned by private clubs—you can watch the game from up there. We're going to want to send [the camera operator] up into those buildings to see what the view looks like from there and what the scene is like."

NHL's Shannon also anticipates multiple feeds on www.nhl.com and www.nbcsports.com.

"We're quite confident and hopeful that [the event] will open a few more eyes to our sport in the United States," he said. "The challenge is to take a single game and make it special without compromising the integrity of the competition."