Players ready for action, but are the broadcasters? Photographer: Dale MacMillan, Getty Images Sport via Getty Images.
When I was a little munchkin growing up in Newfoundland getting my first fix on hockey, the TV broadcasts of the day would join the game already in progress. The game would start at 9:30 Newfoundland time, but the broadcast wouldn't begin until 10:00, typically with the first period winding down. My brothers and I would cluster around the tube for the very start of the broadcast, ever wondering "what's the score?" More often that not play would be underway right at that instant, and Danny Gallivan or Bill Hewitt would say their hellos and immediately bring us up to speed. "Play is underway with 2:35 to go in the first, Leafs lead Montreal 1-0 on a goal by Mahovlich, and here comes Beliveau in over the blueline ..." and away we'd go. Between periods we'd see a replay of the goal(s) and maybe a big save, but "instant replay" was still a couple years away. For the rest of the night, the cameras would follow the play, and between plays they would follow the players going off and the new players coming on and identify them as they got ready for the faceoff. We've come a long way since then, but I'm not sure whether to call everything "progress".
Nowadays we have replays, replays, and more replays. Slow motion replays, super slo-mo replays, regular speed replays with sound (my favourite). Typically two, three, even four angles on any play of even moderate significance. We have cameras to isolate on each bench and the penalty box. We have cameras in the booth. We have viewer contests like Score&Win, spots for future games other programs, national updates, and did I mention commercials? At least there are TV timeouts specifically designed for them so that we viewers don't have to miss any action ... or do we?
TV, it seems, has the same imperative that infects NHL arenas, namely to fill every second between the real action with high-volume (in both senses of the word) "content". Turn it up to 11 and convince the masses that they are being entertained. But all this filler about what just happened, or what happened elsewhere, or what might be happening next week, comes at the cost of not always seeing what's happening NOW, and choices that might affect what happens NEXT.
A key point in the modern game is the match-ups that occur on an ongoing, on-the-fly basis but which are a specific coaching focus of nearly every stoppage in play. Who's lining up against whom? Tell us, or at least show us, as the players prepare for the next drop of the puck.
If not that, at the very least kindly show us the faceoff itself. Draws have also been identified as an important component of the game, the first puck battle of the action sequence. Yet far too often the between-plays coverage not only fills the entire stoppage time but spills over into the next sequence, which is already underway by the time the broadcast returns us to the live action.
A recent Edmonton @ Chicago game was particularly galling for its way-too-frequent late return to the action. I decided to re-view the broadcast to specifically monitor the coverage of every faceoff. Because it caught my eye it probably wasn't an average game in this respect, but it did demonstrate how bad this problem can become if not governed by a competent production crew. This was a local broadcast delivered by Sportsnet, whose production values lag well behind those of TSN or CBC, but the same principles apply wherever.
On this occasion there were 48 faceoffs, of which a bare majority (26) actually occurred on-screen. The opening faceoff was missed while the cameras scanned the benches and the starting goalies, just the first of a long series of oversights which got worse as the game went along and ultimately rolled to its exciting conclusion. Here are my findings from just the third period:
1.07 late EZ icing - showing bench
1.23 yes (PP)
4.53 late EZ PP by 5s
5.30 late EZ - showing bench
7.05 TVTO - late EZ PP by 6s, nearly missed goal
7.27 late NZ by 5s, showing replays
9.09 late NZ by 6s, missed scoring opportunity - showing bench, announcing contest winners
11.28 TVTO - late EZ PP by 5s, showing replay
12.27 late NZ, showing bench
13.13 late EZ , showing bench
14.13 TVTO - late EZ, showing goalie at far end
15.48 late EZ, showing replay
17.27 late EZ , showing bench
EZ = End Zone, meaning in the offensive/defensive zones from the teams' perspectives.
NZ = Neutral Zone faceoff
TVTO = TV timeout
Those are pretty terrible outcomes. With the game on the line in the third, the broadcast missed no fewer than 12 of the 19 draws, nine of those in one of the end zones where a scoring chance or goal can develop quickly and the faceoff itself is of particular interest to the viewer. They weren't just a little late either, but fully FIVE SECONDS LATE on no fewer than FIVE occasions in that third period alone. Significantly, those egregious oversights included the opening draw of all three powerplays, which Oiler fans know all too well can be of major importance. Indeed, we've seen more than one powerplay already this season that never even lasted five seconds.
In one case the camera returned just in time to show Kurtis Foster score the tying goal, eight seconds into a powerplay, but the context of play had been missed. Of course, a replay was able to fill in the blanks, but once again they were covering something that had already happened instead of while it was happening. From the viewer's perspective the scoring shot came completely out of the blue. Worse still, it was after a TV timeout, meaning the crew had close to 30 seconds after returning to air to show the replay of the infraction, close-ups of the coaches, etc.and they flat out weren't ready to show the play, let alone tee it up by telling us who was on the ice.
On the night the next faceoff was missed after 6 of the 9 mandated timeouts, which is pretty pathetic. These overlapped considerably with draws to open powerplays, which often occur after TV timeouts of course; in this game the Sportsnet crew missed 5 of 7 special teams draws.
Other critical faceoffs throughout the game are the ones that occur after icings. Given the demonstrated significance of the no-change rule, it would seem a natural time for broadcasters to focus on the match-up: who is stuck out there in the defensive zone? who has the opposing coach sent over the boards to take advantage? In this game there were four icings, but viewers saw just one of the subsequent faceoffs.
As the game wound down with the Oilers clinging to a 2-1 lead, the broadcast somehow missed two faceoffs in Oilers territory in the last five minutes, although to their credit they were actually paying attention for the final draw with 9 seconds to go, deep in Oiler territory. By that point I was surprised that they weren't panning the crowd for nice-looking girls while talking up the next game or something.
The frequency of switching to play-already-underway not only obviated many opportunities to watch the specific action in the faceoff circle, but had a jarring effect on the overall broadcast, leaving this viewer highly unsatisfied with the coverage of the game supposedly at its focus.
Hockey is a flowing game, even during stoppages in play. Broadcasters need to realize that just because they have three camera angles of the last play they don't need to show them all. Very often they'd be better served to use the last few seconds of a given stoppage to set the stage on the match-ups, to show the centres skating into position, and allow the viewer a moment to adjust to the live context before the puck is dropped. That way we're all in the game rather than "playing from behind" all night.