December 21, 2010
NBC didn't invent the outdoor hockey game. Pond hockey's been around for centuries. The Cold War showed outdoor puck could work as a stadium spectacle. The Heritage Classic brought the NHL from inside the arena into open air and frigid temperatures.
But give credit where it's due: We have the Winter Classic, and the unprecedented impact it's had as a media property for the NHL, because of NBC's ingenuity, resourcefulness and determination.
NBC Sports Executive VP Jon Miller was the driving force behind its creation. NBC had a hole to fill in its New Year's Day sports calendar due to a reconfiguration of college bowl game deals and schedules. Miller's initial concept was to have an outdoor game at the old Yankee Stadium that featured the New York Rangers.
"He asked me if it was a realistic thing to do," recalled Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports, "and since I played hockey on an outdoor rink I felt it was the ultimate way to play the game."
Then came the resistance: Like from the NHL in its pre-lockout days, as the League's brain-trust (minus Gary Bettman, an early and ardent supporter) didn't find the concept workable. That changed when John Collins, whom Miller knew as a business acquaintance for some time, was hired away from the NFL to become the League's senior executive VP and eventual COO in 2006. With a powerful ally on the inside in favor of the New Year's Day game, and with NBC now owning the NHL rights, the momentum started to pick up.
There was more resistance. Like finding teams that wanted to give up a home date for this experiment (the Rangers weren't into it). Like finding a venue for the game (the Yankees were more concerned about the price of keeping the pipes on in the winter than outdoor hockey). Finally, Collins' energy and diligence found a taker in the Buffalo Sabres and a venue in Ralph Wilson Stadium. NBC wanted a star player as their foil; the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed to bring Sidney Crosby(notes) to face off against Buffalo in 2008, a game that at times was perilously close to not happening.
But it did; and now we're preparing for the fourth edition of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2011, between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field. "Regardless of how the idea came about, the result is pretty spectacular," said Flood.
We recently spoke with Flood in Manhattan about the Classic, how to cover it and how HBO's "24/7" plays into it; as well as NBC's NHL coverage, from complaints from fans to Mike Milbury controversies to 3D innovations.
But first, we talked Winter Classic, and the major technological development for this year's game: The NFL's "cable cam" dangling over the ice in Pittsburgh.
FLOOD: I don't think it can be. I think it has to be much more than that.
In the end, Ovie and Sid play a number of times during the year. It's nice to have the two best players going head-to-head, but I think the rich Pittsburgh sports history plays a role. I think the fact that this stadium has had a number of important football games helps. And I think Pittsburgh is a just a great sports town.
Q. Does the NFL contract with NBC create any new tie-ins with the Classic and the NHL?
The only synergy we have is that the cable cam will be left there from the Thursday night game from NFL Network.
I've always pushed back on having a cable cam at the Winter Classic, but for the first time I decided to do it, to add a twist to it. I knew I didn't want one in Buffalo because I wanted clear shots from the plane. So I'll have to work closely with the director [this year] because I don't want the cable cam in the shot.
There's a ceiling that we can't go below. I'm probably going to play it as a reverse angle so it doesn't block the cameras as much. Use it as a replay device.
I think it's going to give you a different sense of place and speed. It should add a different dynamic to it. I just hate watching an NFL game and having the cable cam drop into the shot. It's just frustrating to see it.
Q. Do you try and throw a new wrinkle in every year technology wise?
I do, but in the end it's all about good storytelling. In the end, the biggest change in hockey coverage has been the inside the glass [between the benches] position. When we created that, it changed the way the game was viewed.
It's interesting now that everyone's copying it. When we did the first two Stanley Cup Finals, CBC was asking 'why are they doing this?' Now we're sharing space there.
Q. How does the HBO "24/7" show fit in with that storytelling? Do you plan on bringing that narrative into the Winter Classic coverage?
Yes. They're actually going to do an element in the pregame. We're going to play off of that for some different twist. Not a summary; something real, that reminds us how real hockey can get.
I loved watching it. When they had the song from "Slap Shot" playing while the Penguins were traveling ... it's brilliant. It was my favorite moment of the night!
Before every game I do, we play a clip from "Slap Shot" and we play that Maxine Nightingale song. When we do "Sunday Night Football," the audio guy for them is the audio guy for hockey. So he'll pump back to New York through my headphones the Maxine Nightingale song, every week. That's the kind of passion you have for [hockey] here.
Q. From an NBC
perspective, what we've found interesting is the way you've gone from having
three or four viable television teams to about eight or nine options.
Our goal all along is to try and broaden the national teams and to sell stories about those teams and players. To tie those together so there's a rooting interest for or against every team in the NHL.
Q. Are you aware of the complaints from fans about seeing "the same three teams over and over again" on NBC?
They can complain. We're trying to do what's best for the League and growing the game, and I think that's what we've done during this contract.
Q. Speaking of
complaints: Mike Milbury. There probably isn't a more divisive voice on
American television for hockey. What do you think of his impact and is his role
one that might expand?
I think he's fabulous. When the decision was made and he left the New York Islanders, I was on the phone with him within two days to hire him. Because I knew how good he would be: funny, fun, quick, passionate. Everything you want in a talent.
I see him as a passionate hockey guy who's entertaining. I'm not going to put a white hat or a black hat on him.
Q. You mentioned "Sunday Night Football" earlier, and one of the things we like about that broadcast is the tone. It strikes a balance between educating the casual fans and speaking to the football die hard. Do you see the hockey coverage getting closer to that balance and being less about the casual fan?
I think we cater to the hockey fan first. I disagree with that premise.
If I was catering to the casual fan, I wouldn't have Pierre and Mike between periods. I have two hockey guys doing the intermissions. In the regular season, hockey comes first. The people that come to us are hockey fans. You're not going to tease non-hockey fans into it. In the playoffs, you get a more casual viewer. But in the regular season, who have to satisfy the hockey fan so that they know this is the place to be every Sunday.
Q. What are your thoughts on 3D for hockey on TV?
I'd like to see the number of TVs purchased before we go there. I'm not sure what the value is.
Q. Have you seen it?
Q. Does it work?
Yeah, it works, but I'm not going to be sitting there on a Thursday night wearing a pair of 3D glasses to watch a game. Last night, I was watching four games at the same time. Do I not want to be able to flip around? Or look at my computer during the game? Or read my newspaper?
Q. Finally, what are your thoughts on the upcoming rights negotiation for NBC, Comcast and the NHL?
That's for the corner offices to discuss, not me.
Q. That said: Do you feel NBC has acquitted itself well as a suitor for the NHL?
I think anyone who watches the NHL on NBC knows we're passionate and that we cover the game better than anyone.