NBC Setting Stage for Fifth NHL Winter Classic

Since the first snowflake fell to the ice during the third period at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium on New Year’s Day 2008, the NHL Winter Classic has become a fixture on the sports calendar.

A day normally reserved by college bowl tradition has, instead, morphed into America’s day to celebrate the game of hockey, by staging it the way it was meant to be played: outdoors.

The first NHL Winter Classic, held in Buffalo in 2008, was a rousing success thanks to a game-winning shootout goal from Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in the snow.

“The way [the game in Buffalo] looked on television, it had this snow globe effect and it was so compelling and so different from what people were used to seeing that there was a buzz,” said NBC’s Bob Costas at Wednesday’s media luncheon at NBC Studios in New York. “It got a very good rating, but the buzz and the talk in the days afterward exceeded the raw rating.”

It’s grown into such a sports television mainstay that it’s hard to believe the event is only five years old. Last year’s game – which had to be shifted into prime time due to afternoon rain showers in Pittsburgh – drew 4.5 million viewers making it the most watched regular-season NHL telecast since 1975. In fact, four of the five highest-rated regular season hockey games in that span have been Winter Classic contests.

“Under the lights at Heinz Field,” said Costas, “that was so striking and televised so well that I think if people were even just channel surfing and hadn’t really marked it as something they were going to watch, stopped because it’s kind of arresting to look at.”

Making Viewers “Fall in Love with Hockey”
This year’s version at Citizens Bank Park – which pits two classic rivals in the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers – promises to be just as successful and captivating, driven, in part, by the popular HBO Sports’ documentary series 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic.

As in previous years, NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood and his production team will pull out all the stops to get the most of this most unique telecast.

“This is not just a hockey game; this is a hockey event,” said Flood, a 15-time Emmy Award winner. “We need to capture how cool it is to have a hockey rink down there.”

To do that, NBC will deploy a whopping 30 cameras on Jan. 2. “We’ve got more cameras than players on each team,” cracked Flood. Included in that arsenal of cameras will be the CableCam, made popular for its usage in NFL football coverage.

For the fifth straight year, the crew will also have a camera affixed on an airplane flying above the stadium, grabbing the necessary aerial views for the aesthetically pleasing event.

“I was so proud the first year in Buffalo when we played the first replay of a goal from an airplane,” laughed Flood. “We knew we were the first people ever to do that because no one had ever had a need to cover a [hockey] game from an airplane before.”

Venue Challenges
Over its first four years, the Winter Classic has bounced between football and baseball venues. Flood will be the first to admit that Ralph Wilson Stadium and Heinz Field were much more conducive for televising a hockey game due to its similar shape to a hockey arena.

Last year's Winter Classic in Pittsburgh was moved to prime time when rain showers delayed the game.

“The more traditional setup in a baseball stadium is for a baseball game, its certainly not for a hockey game,” said Flood. “So it’s a little more of a challenge to do it in a baseball stadium.”

However, Citizens Bank Park (which opened in 2004) is the first in the wave of ‘modern’ baseball stadiums to host the Winter Classic, and that makes for a much easier job for NBC than it had at Wrigley Field (2009) and Fenway Park (2010).

“It’s a heck of a lot easier to work in that environment than in the old fashioned ballparks,” said Flood. “So, other than the orientation of the rink at first base to the third base, it’s much easier in this ballpark because it has all of the modern television wiring. It’s easier for our group to accomplish what we want, including putting in the CableCam which we would have been hard pressed to do at Fenway or Wrigley.”

Welcoming Everyone to the Table
With the exception of (maybe) the Stanley Cup Finals, NBC knows the Winter Classic is its premier hockey event of the year. That not only means more viewers, but more casual fans as well. The network’s broadcast philosophy is to welcome everyone to the table and not ostracize the casual viewer.

“I take the wisdom of our producer before we start,” said Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, NHL on NBC’s lead play-by-play man. “Sam always tells us, ‘remember a lot people who don’t normally watch hockey are going to watch this.’ So you try to not get in the way and just let the celebration begin with the opening faceoff.”