Event Previews

NHL voices get set for the Stanley Cup chase: Calling games remotely, away from two empty venues

Voices are concerned about not seeing the trailing official and missing delayed penalties; Mike Lange: "It's a shorter walk to the bathroom"


The NHL and NHLPA ratified an agreement and the league’s loyal fans are pumped for the face off and the Stanley Cup playoff chase. 

The plan establishes rules and guidelines for players and coaches to return to the ice while also identifying cities of Toronto and Edmonton that will be used as hubs for the 24-team Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The game will certainly look and feel different for those on the ice. Rather than being fueled by the electricity of arenas filled with vocal fans, teams will play in empty arenas that might have artificial crowd noise pumped in through the speaker system.

Broadcasters too are accustomed to being in arenas, feeding off engaged fans. But, under the restart, most broadcasters will either broadcast from the booth in their home arenas or from a designated studio, likely in their home cities. In other words, they’ll voice the game remotely. Rather than being able to take in the entire rink to update fans on what changes are being made on the fly, most broadcasters will have to rely on the limitations of television monitors and what they provide.

Broadcasters across most of the major sports will have to do similar things when their respective restarts, but hockey poses unique challenges. Rather than substitutions being made during stoppages of play, teams make line changes frequently, and these changes may be hard to pick up when broadcasters are relying exclusively on following the game off just one monitor following the broad action. Some broadcasters have experience calling games remotely or dealt with few-to-no fans in attendance at games. But calling games in this environment during an event as big as the Stanley Cup playoffs presents  a unique and unprecedented challenge for all.

We reached out to many broadcasters around the league to get their thoughts on how they will adapt once the puck is dropped. 

The schedule was covered earlier this week here

Here are the responses from NHL broadcasters to two questions:

  • What will it be like broadcasting games remotely from the studio, not the arena?
  • What will it be like broadcasting games without fans in the arena?

Kenny Albert (New York Rangers – Radio/National, NBC)

It is certainly more challenging to broadcast games remotely as opposed to inside an arena or stadium. I have done a number of rehearsal/practice broadcasts off TV monitors through the years. During hockey games specifically, the challenges include: the uniform numbers on the shoulders and the backs of the jerseys are smaller and not as visible; not immediately seeing players come off the bench during line changes if not on screen; if the trail referee (sometimes 50 feet behind the play) raises his arm to call a delayed penalty, the official may not be on screen and visible to the broadcasters.

It will be bizarre calling games without fans in the arena, but many of us will be able to draw upon prior experiences such as calling high school sporting events with less than 100 fans in attendance, or minor league hockey games with 2,000 fans in a 12,000-seat arena. I usually keep the “effects” (crowd noise) pretty loud in my headset no matter what sport I’m calling; without fans in the stands, I will have to constantly remind myself to maintain my energy and excitement levels throughout the course of the games.

John Bartlett (Toronto Maple Leafs – TV)

Truth is that  we still don’t know what the plans will be as both hub cities are Canadian. There is a chance we could be in the booth. But calling games off monitors certainly isn’t the ideal way to do the job as it provides many challenges. But some of us have done it before and you just have to grind your way through it under these circumstances.

Empty seats may become the biggest challenge for both players and broadcasters. Our job as broadcasters is to translate the energy of the game and the crowd to the audience. It will be strange at first to not have that vibe, however, once you get immersed in the game action, hopefully it will only become a background thought and you can envision the fans cheering from home while watching on TV.

Joe Beninati (Washington Capitals – TV)

Joe Beninati (@JoeBpXp) | TwitterFortunately, for those of us involved with Washington Capitals telecasts on NBC Sports Washington, we have experience with these types of broadcasts.  In past years, we have done several Caps preseason road games from our studios in Bethesda, Maryland.  

In TV terms, Camera #1 is usually the one designated to stay relatively wide and to sweep back-n-forth with the action as the play moves up and down the ice. In the upcoming NHL Return to Play and Stanley Cup Playoffs, play-by-play announcers will be completely dependent upon what we see from Camera #1 to call the game.  It takes you slightly out of your comfort zone of describing the game from the press box, but you can see plays develop and identify players on the ice quickly.

When working only from a TV monitor, the plays that are more difficult to decipher are the shots that barely graze the goaltenders.  If I am at the rink, I can see the puck change direction and fly off into the corner. Sometimes, it can be a very subtle change of flight that is hard to pick up off the monitor. Same for shots that barely tick off the goalposts.  

Another difficulty to watch for is when the trail official stops the play. When you are calling the game from a TV monitor, that official is not going to be seen from your point of view, he’s not in the frame. It can be a little uncomfortable not knowing for a few seconds why the play was stopped. But it won’t take long for other camera operators to find the trail official making his penalty signal and then you’re back to normal.

This will be something new for me, as far as calling “live” games without spectators in the seats.  I have done sports play-by-play voiceover work on video games before, and there was no crowd-noise interaction.

Finding the right inflection on goal-calls will be a bit of a challenge. But all NHL announcers are familiar with the atmosphere of a road game compared to ones they call from the side of the home team. Inside the arenas, all the goals in this playoff tournament are going to sound as if your team is on the road and there’s little to no fan reaction. It will be up to the announcer to bring home the excitement.

Dennis Beyak (Winnipeg Jets – TV/Radio)

It certainly makes it a little more challenging. You have to rely more on line combinations and defensivee pairings. You don’t have the luxury of glancing over to the far side of the ice to see who is there. When at the arena, before the puck drops you can do a quick scan of the ice to identify players. I have only done a couple of games remotely, and it actually went smoother than I thought it would. So hopefully if that is what ends up happening, that will again be the case. There will be a split second delay to make sure you have the correct number. The benefit of it is, the camera is a lot closer to the action than where we are in most press boxes, so facial recognition and skating style will help with identification. In the end, the game is still the game, and you call what you see.

Empty arenas will be the biggest adjustment. Having done a number of World Championship events, there are some games with not a lot of fans in the building. But never no fans. I guess we will find out how much broadcasters automatically react to crowd noise. The anticipation that “this” shot might find the back of the net, or the fans appreciation of a great save, their reaction to what they deem a bad call by the referee. We will certainly hear coaches barking at players and officials more than we ever have before, same for players going at other players, calling for passes, etc. But big picture, I do believe we feed off the crowd noise. So that will for sure be different. But we will adjust.

Joe Bowen (Toronto Maple Leafs – Radio)

Petition · Bring back Joe Bowen as the Toronto Maple Leafs ...Unlike other sports that either do not move as quickly or replace players while the game is still in progress, hockey is without question the toughest sport to do off a monitor without being on site.  Basketball requires you to identify ten people at a time with great camera angles. Baseball is so slow it’s self explanatory. Football requires you to identify really six or seven players at a time as the defensive side is related well after the fact and a stoppage of play. Hockey is changing participants every 30 to 40 seconds without a stoppage. The key to broadcasting the game is not who has the puck now but who might get it in a blink of an eye. It will be a challenge for all who attempt it during this stage of getting play back on the ice.

The crowd provides the intensity and drama!  It will be quite different not to have either present during play. The broadcaster’s job will be to remember there are a lot of people screaming at their radio or TV because of what you just said.

Brendan Burke (New York Islanders – TV/National, NBC)

It will certainly come with its challenges. We will be limited to calling only what we can see on a screen, which is the same things that fans watching at home will see. So the most obvious difference will be in the things we miss. We will miss things away from the puck or behind the play. We will miss delayed penalties because the referee with his arm up will be off-screen. We will miss injured players going to the bench. We will miss players leaving the bench to go to the locker room for medical reasons or equipment issues.  We will miss scrums and fights. We will miss odd-man rushes developing. We will miss goalies being pulled. 

There is also the challenge of identifying players as quickly as we normally do. Even in places where the press box is a mile away from the ice (coincidentally enough Edmonton is one of those places), it’s easier to see jersey numbers than it is off a monitor. 

I’m not complaining, it’s just the nature of the sport and the reality of the situation. Even with all that being said I am sure 100% of the broadcasters would choose doing games this way over not doing any games at all.

The lack of crowd is the big unknown. It will certainly be different. For me, I spent 10 years in the minor leagues so I try to bring my own energy to the broadcast but I would much prefer to feed off the crowd. Since we won’t be in the arena either, it will already have somewhat of a disconnected feeling for us and I am not sure how much of a difference that will make on our end. I am sure it will be bizarre for the players to be playing in a playoff game and hear nothing but skates and whistles.

Alex Faust (Los Angeles Kings – TV/National, NBC)

alex faust square profileI’m somewhat used to calling sports off a monitor. Most of my work calling tennis is done away from the venue. The biggest challenge there, as it will be for hockey, is awareness of what I can’t see. While tennis has two participants and the ball in frame 100% of the time, hockey has five times as many, constantly rotating, on a much larger playing surface. Play-by-play mechanics won’t change much but I suspect that, as a group, we’ll need heightened awareness of who’s on the ice at any given moment. Great care will have to be taken to assume nothing, only commenting on the pictures we can see. We’ll have to be aware of blind spots: relying heavily on the director to be on top of penalties (knowing that a trailing referee may be out of frame), and keeping referees in frame on scoring plays. Audio will be super important: I usually crank up “nats” in my headset so that I can hear deflections and saves, and that’ll be no different here. The good news in all of this? Many viewers at home have a closer view of the action than we do, so I think we’ll have good pictures to work with.

Many announcers started their career calling games with almost nobody in the stands. I did a fair share of NCAA Division III hockey games like that. The big lesson you learn: you can’t overdo it, otherwise it’ll sound horribly out of place. Without the crescendo of a big crowd, your voice can’t overwhelm the broadcast, even in a big moment. That said, it’s still hockey, it’ll still be exciting, and it’ll be impossible to not get pulled into the drama of the playoffs. And hey, even in “normal” times some buildings can get pretty quiet when a visiting team scores. It’ll be weird at first, but assuming we get crisp on-ice audio, I think it’ll be easy to strike the right balance.

Steve Goldstein (Florida Panthers – TV)

I think the energy of calling a game live, with fans, is what will be missed. But, it is MY responsibility to bring that energy to the viewer. As always, we use what we DO have, not worry about what we don’t have! Hockey is much more difficult to call off a monitor because so much is happening behind the play, on the benches, etc. So, it will be challenging but I really look forward to the opportunity. I am very fortunate to be able to call games in any fashion right now!

Jim Jackson (Philadelphia Flyers – TV)

Jim Jackson (@JimJPhilly) | TwitterI have broadcast some exhibition/preseason games off of a monitor before. It’s a challenge in that you are at the mercy of the camera work and direction in terms of the angles you get. Also, in general, a play-by-play announcer needs to see where the puck is going and that isn’t always possible when you are limited by the framework of the camera shot.

Another issue is that the officials are not always in the shot and so you aren’t certain when calls (delayed penalties for instance) are being made. So, it is not optimal but we do the best we can with it. At this point, I will be happy if there is hockey at all so the inconveniences we have to face are well worth it to get the games on the air and give the fans as close to a normal telecast as possible.

When doing a game off a monitor, I’m always concerned about trying to maintain my energy level because it’s different not being at the arena. I usually try to pump in as much of the natural sound into my headset as possible to get the feel for the crowd and the atmosphere at the game. In this case, there won’t be crowd noise to use so that challenge becomes even greater. I’m not sure how it will be. I’m imagining I will have to generate energy on my own and just hope the importance of the game and quality of the play make it easier than I anticipate.

Chris King (New York Islanders – Radio)

It will be very strange to be in our radio studio and not in an arena for sure. From a pure play-by-play standpoint, it will be very difficult to call the game properly based strictly off what I am watching on the monitor, which is a camera following the puck very tightly. I am used to being able to look out over the entire rink at any time to pick up line changes, point men, trailers on odd-man rushes, etc. Also, just being able to see the numbers on the players’ uniforms will be much harder as well. I also pick up a tremendous amount of adrenaline from being in the arena, especially at home – at Barclays Center where we are right in the crowd at the top of the lower bowl, and Nassau Coliseum where its low roof is probably the loudest building in the NHL. So I will need to find a way to boost my emotional level for Stanley Cup Playoff games that are usually the best games of the entire year!

Since I will not be in the arena where the games are being played, this will be a much larger adjustment for the players than it will be for me. They thrive off the energy of the fans.  It will be interesting to see if the NHL decides to use fake crowd noise or not. It would be very strange to see overtime, game-winning goals or overtime, series-clinching goals that are met with complete silence. But I’m also not sure how realistic “fake crowd” noise would sound on radio. I know we are planning on adding in some crowd audio that is unique to Islanders hockey – the “Yes! Yes! Yes!” chant that happens after every goal they score at home.

Bob Kurtz (Minnesota Wild – Radio)

I honestly don’t know. Have never done it. It seems to me that some sports like baseball and golf would be easier off the monitor and others like hockey and football would be more difficult. There will also be a difference trying to do radio as opposed to TV. The biggest concern is not being able to see everything that you would be normally see in the arena i.e., the trailer coming from behind on a 2-1 or a line change etc. It will be a challenge. I look forward to it.

While the play is going on, I’m concentrating on following the action. That’s true whether the arena is full – or not. So while the empty arena atmosphere will be different, I don’t expect that it will affect how I’m broadcasting.

Mike Lange (Pittsburgh Penguins – Radio)

Penguins promo schedule includes tribute to broadcaster Mike Lange ...Let me just preface one thing. This is an enormous endeavor by the NHL to pull this off. There’s a lot of work that’s gone on behind the scenes, and they’re to be congratulated. I can be a critic of them, but I can tell you unequivocally that they have been just tremendous in their efforts to make this happen.

It’ll be different, there’s no question. They’ve got it down to two locations now, and they’re trying to make a selection for us. Either the arena booth itself with nobody there or the flagship station. I think they’re leaning toward that studio to do it. It is certainly of interest to me because they’re going to put on three games a day. What kind of feed are they going to get and send along? Will it just be one feed?

You’ve got so many variables here with the broadcasting television-wise, as far as the directors, the crew and how they approach a game and cut a game. That’ll be something that I don’t know a lot about right now, but we’ll find out along the way. It revolves around how much of the game and ice you’re going to be able to see during the course of calling a game. Probably a little more than what they’re doing these days as far as close-ups and other things to give us a little room to be able to read some numbers. Of course, our game and any sport, really, revolves around numbers for dummies. If I can see the number, I can probably do a decent job of making it happen. It’s a good challenge, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it transpires. The real redeeming value is, in either case, it’s a shorter walk to the bathroom, so we’ll have some fun with it.

As far as no fans in the arena, makes me chuckle. I don’t think there’s a broadcaster around that hasn’t worked under those circumstances at least once or twice in his career. The early days, particularly, for most of us, when there weren’t hardly any fans around. I can go back to my college days. doing games with nobody around the baseball diamond and calling games there. The key will be the focus, which it always is, really, for broadcasters. We’ve seen buildings almost completely empty at the tail end of games when people go home, you work through it. The other thing will be what kind of sound feed we’ll get. I don’t know if they plan to incorporate crowd sound or the effects, and that can have a bearing on how the feed goes. I do think that without the fans in the arena, it certainly will be different, but I think we’ll be able to focus and make it work.


Bob McElligott (Columbus Blue Jackets – Radio)

I believe that we are going to broadcast out of our booth at the arena. Therefore, we won’t be in an actual studio. 

As for empty arenas, I think it’s really going to suck. Having done many other sports, I think that the electricity of a crowd really translates in hockey. Not just for the broadcast, but the way the players feed off of it. It will be very different and I don’t know what to expect.

Steve Mears (Pittsburgh Penguins – TV)

Steve Mears - WikipediaLuckily remote broadcasting is something that I’ve done many times before, so I’m glad that it won’t be too foreign. But the challenges of doing hockey play-by-play off of a monitor are twofold. First, there are the difficulties in not being able to see the entire sheet of ice (missing things that happen behind the play, etc.) and also just not having the daily interaction with the players which help provide so much additional information for the broadcast. We all know that the best nuggets of material usually come from one-on-one conversations with players and coaches, so those will be missed greatly. But even without those tools, I’ll be happy to do a game from a tiny studio in Siberia if it means that we have hockey back.

Not having that collective energy and noise in the building from the crowd will be bizarre, especially for Stanley Cup playoff hockey where the ebb and flow is usually so drastic. But as announcers, we have a specific job of narrating the action, regardless of who’s in the building, and bringing some level of our own energy to the show. I know I usually feed off of the crowd while I’m doing play-by-play, so there will be some level of having to “manufacture” that internally, but making sure not to overdo it. I don’t know if there’s anything in sports that’s as “edge of your seat” exciting as playoff hockey and overtime in particular. Having those seats empty just won’t be the same, but the drama on the ice will still be there.  

Jack Michaels (Edmonton Oilers – Radio)

As for not being there live, to be honest, I’m not sure. I’ve never done it, and even though I’ve been trying to simulate by calling a few during the NHL pause, I don’t think there’s really any way to create an actual game-like situation until you actually do it, so I guess I’ll have a better answer for you August 1. My best guess is that the biggest challenge will be trying to cover instances of action/penalties away from the pick.

No crowd? It might be even stranger going down this road, for in some arenas I imagine the players might even hear some random calls in the distance. I’ve always loved the crowd effects “up” in my headset, so I imagine a major adjustment is coming if we end up having to manufacture something without actual fans in the stands.

Gord Miller (National, TSN and NBC)

I’m not sure if we’ll be doing the games from the arena or from a studio.  I’ve done both, and my preference is to be on-site whenever possible.

As for doing games without fans, I have limited experience.  I’ve done games with very few fans for various reasons, it’s certainly different.  All you can do is your best under the circumstances with which you’re presented.

Dave Mishkin (Tampa Bay Lightning – Radio)

I’ve done some games off a monitor before (when my wife was undergoing treatment for cancer). The biggest challenge for a hockey play-by-play announcer – whether for radio or TV- is being able to see the puck. This is directly related to how wide of a shot we receive off that center ice game camera. Fans might think we’d want a tight shot, since the players would be larger on the screen, but it’s actually the opposite. If a shot is too tight, the camera operator might momentarily lose the puck if it’s moving quickly. A wider shot makes that scenario less likely. 

There are other challenging aspects to calling a game from a studio. You can only see what’s provided on the screen, so anything that happens behind the play won’t be visible. This can be tougher, admittedly, on the analyst, but it also affects the p-b-p announcer. You’re seeing the action in two dimensions – not three. Multiple penalty calls can be trickier to determine when you’re not at the arena. But for me, the biggest question I had going into any game would be… what will that center ice camera shot look like?

Jeff Rimer (Columbus Blue Jackets – TV)

Blue Jackets TV Play-by-Play announcer Jeff Rimer set to call ...It will be different no doubt. I love the atmosphere in the arena, The fans, the electricity we see from the booth and the ability to see plays develop we will not see from the studio. Our sport is so fast, following the puck up ice, seeing an odd man rush and a likely scoring chance. One advantage with no fans in the building  will be new camera angles closer to the action as well as from different vantage points. Looking forward to it.

I have been thinking about empty arenas since the pause and actually on March 12th before the NHL was shut down The Blue Jackets were about to face Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins WITHOUT Fans at Nationwide Arena. Of course the game was cancelled that afternoon and we are now looking forward to seeing the return of the NHL and the ‘Play in’ Series August 1st when the Blue Jackets meet the Maple Leafs in the best of five series. That said, the audio person or persons will be key and I for one think some crowd noise might be the answer similar to what we are seeing with the televising of European Soccer. I am sure the NHL Broadcasting and Fox Sports folks are working on a game plan to make the sights and sounds of our great game the best they can be!

Dan Robertson (Montreal Canadiens – Radio)

I’ve called games remotely before and it’s not easy. You can’t see what’s going on behind the play which makes it harder to get a feel for what the ‘big picture’ is. You feel somewhat disconnected from the game at first but you eventually get into the rhythm.

I’ve never called a game when fans are not in the arena so it remains to be seen. However, having called games at different levels with few fans In the arena, it’s a strange sensation. At first, I’ve tended to feel a bit self-conscious….I’ve had the feeling that I had to generate a little more excitement on my own through the way I call the game. I believe there will be a lot of good ambient sound with sticks and pucks and players voices that should help broadcasters and fans feel more engaged in the game.

Tim Saunders (Philadelphia Flyers – Radio)

It’ll be strange to say the least. There’s no way you can call a game in exactly the same way as if you were at the arena because you’re limited to only what your monitor shows. You’d be surprised how many different things we look at and look for when calling a game. It’ll be like calling the game “with one eye tied behind your back, lol”

Two of the Winter Classic/Stadium Series games we’ve done over the years in football stadiums – we’ve had to rely heavily on monitors to call the game, but of course we were still physically there. This will be far different – but the world we live in now is different and I think we’re all thankful just to be doing games.

A play-by-play guy’s call is absolutely enhanced by crowd noise and ice level effects. The energy of the call in some ways is dictated by it. There are times we all have to manufacture energy, but the absence of fans in the arena will make it more challenging to convey the excitement of a game.

Judd Sirott (Boston Bruins- Radio)

The goal remains the same: do the best broadcast you can, based on the conditions you’re presented. That said, I’ve never done a game remotely in the past, so I spent some time the last few months talking with announcers who have. That will be a new component of my normal preparation, learning the art of calling a game off of a monitor. 

Part of the adjustment will be based on the angles we get from the NHL’s “World Feed”. How tight will the play-by-play camera be? Can I see a developing 3-on-2? Can I see who jumps on the ice in the last minute to create a 6-on-5 in a one-goal game? Can I see a player head down the tunnel after blocking a shot? What replays will be available?

Having spent years in the AHL and IHL, as well as doing several other major league/pro events, I’ve worked a number of games in empty buildings. That said, the crowd is more than a music bed; it heightens, amplifies and highlights every aspect of the game. 

It’s infectious at the Garden — and every building around the NHL — when you hear the sound of amazement when David Pastrnak dangles a defender to score a goal; the thunder of a Zdeno Chara open-ice check; the disgust when Brad Marchand gets hooked on a breakaway and there’s no call; or the crescendo in anticipation of a Bruins win. Most players feed off of that energy from the crowd. Broadcasters are no different.  

John Walton (Washington Capitals – Radio)

Funny enough, we will be at the arena, just not the one where the games are being played. We have a terrific relationship with NBC Sports Washington, and they will be setting us up with the live feed from Toronto in the press box at Capital One Arena. It will be strange, and perhaps a bit eerie, to be one of just four people in an empty arena, but we’re grateful to at least feel like we’re going to work like we usually do.

Honestly, it won’t be nearly as much fun without the fans. The energy of a building during the playoffs is what makes it so special. We won’t have that, and that is the worst part about this. But we are all professionals, and we will call the action to the best of our abilities so that our fans can feel like they are there, even when they are not.

John Wiedeman (Chicago Blackhawks – Radio)

Radio Voice of the Chicago Blackhawks John Wiedeman by SiriusXMNHL ...Live, play-by-play broadcasting of any sport from a studio while viewing the action on a TV monitor or screen, instead of calling the action from a broadcast booth inside the venue, is obviously not the preferred method by any sports broadcaster. 

I believe a play-by-play broadcast of hockey in this scenario should require a higher level of concentration, combined with an energized focus on identifying players, the areas of the ice and the actions of the players involved. This could prove to be challenging as the action will be called off a monitor where a broadcaster’s peripheral vision that enables anticipation of the play, will probably be limited. What we take for granted when we’re inside the arena under normal conditions are the panoramic views of the rink, the energy and passion from the fans who can provide important ambient sound, the overall aura and specter of the game itself. Broadcasting from a location inside the arena is coupled with a sense of connection, an intensity and a feeling of obligation to the listeners. Broadcasting from a remote studio may hold a sense of detachment but the intensity and obligation should remain the same. 

Broadcasting any sport without fans inside the venue would be viewed as an enormous change from what all of us have become accustomed to. 

My belief is that once the games begin our concentration and focus will be on calling the games in a professional manner with precise descriptions and unique commentary regarding the actions we are describing. But the fact that no fans will be in the venue, to me, should serve as a constant reminder for all of us connected to the professional sports world that promoting, preserving and protecting the sport we represent is a lifetime commitment and reinforces the notion that if our great fans ever stopped caring, empty buildings is what we’d be working from on a regular basis…



Jason Shebilske

Jason Shebilske is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying journalism, including an emphasis in sports communication. In addition to Sports Broadcast Journal, he currently writes for RotoWire, a fantasy sports database in Madison, Wisconsin.

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