NBC Brings Spectacle of NHL Winter Classic to Nation’s Capital

While the volume of outdoor NHL hockey may have increased in recent years with the creation of the NHL Stadium Series this year, the NHL Winter Classic remains the most iconic and highly rated of the bunch – and NBC Sports Group will treat it accordingly come New Year’s Day at Nationals Park in Washington, DC.

“The Winter Classic stands on its own because it’s the centerpiece game of the outdoor circuit,” says NBC Sports Group Executive Producer Sam Flood. “And we have every bell and every whistle for that game, from airplanes to cable cams; you name it, we throw everything at it.”

In addition to a wealth of cameras on hand to cover the Washington Capitals-Chicago Blackhawks matchup at Nationals Park in Washington, DC, the Peacock will unveil a brand new graphics package, erect an on-site studio set, and tackle the audio side of the equation — always a challenge at outdoor games.

“Sam [Flood] always preaches to us that this is not a game, this is an event,” says Jeff Simon, who has directed every single Winter Classic for NBC. “While you, of course, want to cover the X’s and O’s and do them justice, it’s not like a regular game where you would instinctively look to [create] a replay of a really nice touch pass or something along those lines. The spectacle of these games is really what they are all about. It is very different from anything else we cover all year long.”

All About the Aerials
NBC will roll out NEP’s ND5 as its primary mobile unit along with ST27 for support. The network will deploy more than 30 cameras at Nationals Park, about 25 of which will be used specifically to cover game action. As long as the weather cooperates, the most compelling shot figures to once again be the airplane-mounted aerial angle.

“To me, that is the most spectacular view of any outdoor game in all of sports,” says Simon. “We didn’t have it last year [in Ann Arbor] and really missed it, but we were able to lean on our other cameras.”

In addition, NBC will have a SkyCam cable-driven aerial system to capture the high-angles that are so integral to capturing the Winter Classic ambiance, along with a jib on the field, two roving RF wireless handhelds, and a Sony HDC-3300 super-slo-mo.

“In the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, it was really cloudy and we were very fortunate that the FAA allowed the plane to get up in the air because those shots made the show,” says Simon. “But we did not have a SkyCam or RF handhelds back then, so when the airplane went away in the second period, it limited the color we could show. So over the years I have learned about the importance of redundancy.”

A New Take on Old Favorites
Covering the Winter Classic is about much more than just specialty cameras, however. Even standard positions are utilized in a drastically different fashion compared to a typical game.  For example, when the handheld operators located in the corners of the rink shoot a faceoff, they typically frame both players from head-to-toe with the puck centered, and Simon will cut away almost immediately after the puck is dropped. However, in order to create a more compelling sense of place for these stadium-housed games, camera ops will shoot much wider to capture the crowd and stadium in the background and Simon will hold on the faceoff for a few extra moments.

“Our camera operators are hockey veterans who have covered thousands of games,” says Simon. “You have to change their mindset and let them know that on a whistle, I may not want them to get Alex Ovechkin, I may want them to get a great view of the fans and the stadium.”

A New Graphics Look
On the graphics side, NBC will take the high-profile opportunity of the Winter Classic to take the wrappings off a new insert graphics package for its hockey coverage.

While Simon says NBC is currently working on virtual enhancements and player-tracking technology with the league, these elements will likely not hit viewers at home until the All-Star Game in February.

“We don’t really have virtual enhancements on this game because you just don’t need it,” says Simon. “There is so much else going on between the event and the game, they would get lost in the shuffle.”

Audio Always a Challenge
Capturing the sounds of the Winter Classic has always been a challenge, as moving from an indoor to outdoor venue requires A1s and their teams to dramatically rethink their strategy. In addition to concerns about precipitation mucking up the technical works, wind also plays a major factor for NBC.

“The mics that are used for hockey are extremely sensitive to capture the hits on the ice and wind can really mess those up,” says Simon. “So [A1 Tim Dunn] has to make a determination whether he needs to put out different mics that might not pick up the crowd sound as effectively. If it gets really windy with his normal mics, they are virtually useless, so he has to play that one by ear.”

Dunn and his team will deploy 25 to 30 microphones on the ice and the throughout Nationals Park in an effort to capture the ambiance of the NHL’s most iconic event – a challenge made that much more difficult by the expansive distance between the ice and the stands.

“The other thing that is tricky is mixing the crowd in,” says Simon. “At an indoor arena, the crowd is right on top of the ice, but at a stadium, the crowd is set back a ways. So if you want to get the crowd in and capture the feeling of the big outdoor event, you have to put mics throughout the crowd specifically to get that.”

On-Site in DC
NHL Live host Liam McHugh will be on-site at NBC’s Nationals Park set alongside analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, and Jeremy Roenick for pregame, intermission, and postgame coverage. In addition, The Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore will be on-site to provide weather updates and conduct interviews throughout the game, continuing the role he’s held at previous NHL Winter Classics.

Play-by-play stalwart Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, analyst Eddie Olczyk, and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will call the action on the ice.

Coverage of the 2015 Winter Classic begins at 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 1 on NBC.