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NBC warms to Winter Classic challenge

Thursday, 01.01.2009 / 4:37 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

About all that was missing from NBC's coverage of the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic was Mike Emrick.

The Hall of Fame announcer had to miss Thursday's game between the retro-jersey-clad Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks due to a case of laryngitis. But NBC "has a deep bench," as host Bob Costas noted, and Dave Strader, the voice of the Phoenix Coyotes who also does games for NBC, ably filled in, working with regular analyst Ed Olczyk.

NBC's telecast began at 1 p.m. ET with Costas setting the scene before introducing a video history of Wrigley Field, the longtime home of the Chicago Cubs, but a venue that has also hosted the NFL's Chicago Bears and a variety of other events.

Costas also spoke with analyst Mike Milbury, who was skating on the auxiliary rink behind the main surface. Milbury looked like a kid out for a morning game of shinny.

Analysts Pierre McGuire and Darren Pang also were on skates before the game as they interviewed Chicago's Patrick Kane and Detroit's Chris Chelios, a Hawk hero in one of his previous hockey lives. NBC also provided a variety of overhead shots that provided perspective on the special event — the snow-and ice-covered surface of Wrigley stood out from the neighborhood that surrounds it.

A different perspective came from the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore, who provided updates on the conditions from the top of the center field scoreboard prior to the game. He noted that the winds were enough to occasionally make the structure sway. For an interview during the first intermission, he found a fan who had attended a last year's Winter Classic in Orchard Park, N.Y. — he noted that this year's game featured colder temperatures, but no snow.

The actual game coverage benefited from McGuire being on the ice between the benches, where he was able, for example, to provide updates on the gusty winds and which team would benefit from it. He also noted that the League had opted not to have the teams switch ends midway through each period to equalize any wind-aided advantage, and was quick to pick up on the extra push the wind may have given Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk on his spectacular goal late in the second period.

NBC did a good job mixing in low camera shots that gave viewers a different perspective on the game's speed and physicality — something that a lot of casual fans might not appreciate. Early in the third period, the network offered an overhead shot of game action, shot from an airplane over the stadium, that provided a view no fan may ever have had — as Strader noted, it was a view that coaches would love because it offered a chance to see where everyone on the ice was as the play developed.

Between the first and second period, NBC gave viewers a taste of what hockey is all about with a feature on the Blackhawks using their lone day off during a November road trip to journey to Gravenhurst, Ont., for the funeral of Stan Tallon, father of Hawks' GM Dale Tallon. It's a story that some fans may have been familiar with — but a lot may not have known about.

Much more so that an average regular-season game, the announcing was a conversation between Strader and Olczyk in the booth and McGuire and Pang at ice level. NBC did a good job using McGuire and Pang to keep viewers updated on the effects of the wind (and a brief appearance by the sun early in the third period), as well as the way the Wings rebounded from an early 3-1 deficit for the 6-4 victory.

A feature after the second period gave viewers some insights into the lure of pond hockey, which Costas noted was the genesis of the Winter Classic. The package included some home movies of Hawks captain Jonathan Toews skating on an outdoor rink on Christmas morning as a 9-year-old.

NBC gave solid replays that showed a third-period shot by Brett Lebda originally called no goal by referee Tim Peel had, in fact, gone under the crossbar and into the net. It also captured the anger and frustration of Chicago goaltender Cristobal Huet, who was lifted after Lebda's goal made it 6-3.

Overall, for those of us who weren't lucky enough to be inside Wrigley Field, NBC did an excellent job of covering both the hockey game between the Wings and Blackhawks and the Winter Classic — an event that transcended a mere 60 minutes on ice. As Olczyk noted in his wrap-up, exceeding last year's inaugural Winter Classic was difficult, but that's exactly what happened.