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NBC Sports looks to advance TV coverage of ice hockey

NBC Sports ice hockey commentator Eddie Olczyk (r) talks with Mike "Doc" Emrick (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

NBC Sports said its production for the upcoming National Hockey League playoffs will look to break new ground for televised coverage of ice hockey.

Similar to the league’s broader plans to reshape its in-game presentation for its revived playoffs beginning August 1 and being held in the Canadian markets of Toronto and Edmonton amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, network officials are planning a series of new camera angles and audio enhancements for its coverage.

“Our job now is to tell this great story and to let the world know how much fun it’s going to be to have these teams battling it out inside these buildings,” said Sam Flood, NBC sports executive producer. 

Among the planned changes are a broader use of “JitaCam,” an overhead camera hanging from the scoreboard offering 360-degree views of the ice, as part of an overall video setup of up to 30 cameras at each venue, including some robotic cameras. The overhead camera was originally introduced at the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in Tampa, Florida, but will now get a much more extensive rollout.

“It can swoop in behind the power play, and there’s nothing better than to look at that top of the point position of the power play, and looking in at the goalie, trying to figure out where the puck is going to go,” Flood said of JitaCam. “We think that it will be a unique way to look at certain parts of the game, and it will also be a fun camera to use in transition.”

Audio, meanwhile, will also be retooled with no fans in attendance at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto and Rogers Place in Edmonton. Though there will be extensive amounts of team-specific audio, including goal horns, and simulated crowd noise from NHL video game licensee EA Sports used during games, the network is planning to more extensively feature player audio through the placement of additional microphones near the ice.

There will be a five-second delay, however, to allow network personnel to screen out player, coach, and referee profanity.

“We will be experimenting as we progress. We think there is incredible sound inside the glass, around the boards of a hockey rink,” Flood said. “There’s some colorful language, so the NHL has decided to rightfully put the games on a five-second delay. But we will be taking advantage of the incredible audio that comes with hockey, and probably have learned a lot watching the Stadium Series and Winter Classic Games.

“The enhanced audio from inside the glass can be supplemented by some audio EA sports has that we will mix in as needed. But we are going to really test and find out what the best balance is and what the best experience is for the viewers as we evolve through this,” Flood said.

NBC Sports’ overall commentary and production of the NHL games will be geographically spread to help avoid clustering of personnel amid the pandemic. The network’s production plan will mix personnel at the network’s Stamford, Connecticut headquarters along with others in Toronto and Edmonton, and lead play-by-play announcer Mike “Doc” Emrick working from a home studio in Michigan for at least the start of the NHL playoff tournament.

“It’s very compact. It’s very comfortable,” Emrick said of his home set-up of video monitors, a laptop computer with graphics feeds, an audio mixer, microphones, and cameras. 

“I think the access to information and all else will be similar to what they have in Stamford. The monitor size, et cetera., I think is going to be the same, if not comparable, so I’ve been set up really well. So all of this is exciting. I have done monitor-only games before, so that is not new. It’s just something that hasn’t happened in recent years. There is an adjustment to it, but it is the same game and we are seeing it on really clear screens. So we’ll just do our best to bring the game to people,” Emrick said.

NBC Sports will be handling world feed production duties from the Toronto games that will represent the NHL Eastern Conference playoffs, while the league’s Canadian rightsholder Sportsnet will lead world feed efforts from Edmonton.