NHL Hits Europe for Season Openers

By Ken Kerschbaumer

This weekend, with the help of NEP Visions and Dream Team Production AB, the National Hockey League will begin the 2008-09 season with an international flair, playing four games in Prague and Stockholm. Last year, the NHL began its season in London, and this year, the production staff will reap the benefits of that experience.

“This is a great opportunity to learn more about how [broadcast] technology works in Europe and how we can marry it with North America[n operations],” says Adam Acone, NHL VP, broadcasting and programming. “It’s also exciting to operate in different venues, share with new people, and create something that is unique.”

In both cities, the core crew will be from North America: the lead cameraman, technical director, lead audio mixer, EVS operator, producer, and director. Additional crew in Stockholm will be local because English is widely spoken there; in Prague, NEP Visions will provide staffers, most of whom worked for the NHL in London last year.

“Our partners who have done a lot of hockey in Prague found a huge gap in translation,” says Acone. “And in the live-TV environment, there really is no time for interpretation. So we’ll be using English-speaking techs.”

The production in Prague’s O2 Arena will have 14 HD cameras; the one in Stockholm’s Globe Arena will have 18, with Canal+ Sweden supplementing the production with four additional cameras. The games will be shot in 1080i/50Hz with both a clean and dirty feed available.

“The production will have a host-broadcaster feel, produced and directed right down the middle,” says Acone. “It will be similar to the way we handle the All-Star game and Stanley Cup Finals, with a simple graphics package that is numbers-driven and includes simple names and stats.”

Producing the games in 1080i/50Hz makes it much easier to use the Europe-based production gear, with standards conversion handled by transmission-services provider Eurovision in Washington.

The venues are hockey-friendly, Acone says. “Both arenas have all the right camera positions, although the Globe Arena has camera positions on the same side as the bench and we prefer to shoot into the benches.”

The challenge in the O2 Arena is that it is not wired for HD and the truck bays are 200 yards from the arena. “We were worried about losing signal strength over a triax run,” says Acone, “but NEP Visions did two surveys and found the cabling that would meet our needs.”

One change from last year will be the use of PAL-based ENG gear to shoot feature stories as the players visit Prague and Stockholm and get ready for the games. Last year, the NHL used NTSC equipment in London, and the crew found itself scrambling to find a Snell & Wilcox Alchemist standards converter to make the NTSC video compatible with the 50-Hz frame rate. “By going PAL,” says Acone, “we’ll be able to get ahead of things more easily.”

Working in PAL is something Acone and the NHL’s production team will need to get used to because expansion of the league into Europe is expected within the next 10 years.

“With one-third of our players from Europe, there is a tremendous opportunity to grow outside of North America,” says Acone. “The players enjoy playing in front of their hometown fans.”