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NHL adds atmosphere to postseason games during unique time

League tries to enhance gameday, television presentation with help from teams like CBJ

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Leo Welsh won't be in Toronto. Stinger and Greg Murray didn't make the trip, either. And the iconic 1,564-pound 1857 Napoleon cannon that Blue Jackets fans have come to love and opponents hate hasn't been wheeled across the border. 

But virtual versions of each could very well be part of the Blue Jackets' home games, as the NHL is trying to make Toronto's house everyone's home during the NHL's restart. 

Everyone knows it won't be a normal postseason, with all 12 Eastern Conference teams in a bubble in Toronto, including the Blue Jackets as they get ready to take on the Maple Leafs in a series beginning Sunday. And because of the coronavirus pandemic, no fans will be in Scotiabank Arena when those teams battle it all out. 

It will never be the same, but the NHL has done its best to try to spruce up the game atmosphere when the games officially kick off. Scotiabank Arena has been converted into a stage-like feel thanks to temporary video boards and graphics, and teams have submitted content that will play on the screens to simulate what a normal home game would look and sound like. 

For the Blue Jackets "home" games, that means submitting a team-specific intro package, video of Welsh singing the national anthems, video of Stinger pumping up the crowd, Murray's signature power-play call and more that the league can use at its discretion. 

And yes, that includes a virtual cannon that will boom after each CBJ goal.  

"They're going to try to do their best to replicate a home game in the arena," said Derek Dawley, the Blue Jackets' executive producer and senior director of event presentation, who has worked with the league to make sure it has everything it needs. "It's tremendous. What they have done to transform these buildings, it's really cool." 

In addition, the NHL through the team reached out to a number of season ticket holders to submit videos of them doing notable team chants, such as the "C-B-J" chant and the chili chant that happens when the team scores its third goal. 

Of course, there won't be any fans in the building to get ramped up by those chants if they're used, but it will help approximate the game-day atmosphere as much as possible and bring some sense of normalcy to the proceedings. 

"It's more to give the players that feel," Dawley said. "You're not going to elicit their response from whoever is in the building, but you're just trying to create that atmosphere even if you don't have fans." 

Given the challenge of hosting postseason games in an arena without fans, especially when those fans often are as much a part of the show as the game action, the NHL chose to meet the challenge head-on and create much atmosphere as possible given the situation. 

And the league has given notice -- not everything was rolled out during the exhibition games that took place over the last three days.

"We're going to bring these arenas to life through the art and video and audio and lighting," said Steve Mayer, the NHL's senior executive vice president and chief content officer. "We really think we have a pretty cool plan where every single game will feature a new look." 

TV changes, enhancements 

In a similar vein, the NHL is trying to make the best of a difficult situation when it comes to the television broadcasts, as much of the on-air talent and production crews won't be able to attend the games to call them live. 

NBC is handling the production for the national broadcasts of the games in Toronto -- the Blue Jackets will be on NHL Network for Game 1 and NBCSN for Game 2 nationally -- while providing a "clean feed" for Fox Sports Ohio, which will utilize that video for its broadcasts of the opening round against Toronto. 

Fox Sports Ohio will have its usual crew of Jeff Rimer, Jody Shelley and Dave Maetzold on the call, joined by pregame, postgame and intermission hosts Brian Giesenschlag and Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre from Nationwide Arena, where they will call the game off monitors with a studio desk set up in the team locker room. It's something even legendary NBC play-by-play man Doc Emrick will have to do from his home in Michigan, as only one national TV crew is allowed in each NHL hub to call games live.  

Tweet from @FOXSportsCbus: The setup for @jrimercbj & @shelleyhawk45 at NWA calling tonight's @BlueJacketsNHL exhibition game #CBJ

In addition, Fox Sports Ohio has a full production crew stationed at Nationwide Arena for the broadcasts to make sure the games will look and feel the way Blue Jackets fans have come to expect.

The NHL is also planning to use this opportunity to experiment with video and audio in a new way. With no fans in the building, the NHL is able to put cameras in places it never has been able to before. The upcoming games will have 32 to 35 cameras in operation for each game, about a dozen more than usual.  

"There are no fans, and many times the considerations of where cameras go in arenas are based on where our fans are," Mayer said. "We don't want to block our fans from the viewing experience. We have no fans here, so we are able to walk around an arena like this and find the perfect, most ideal positions for every single one of our cameras. 

"We've all heard that our game -- we all want it to translate better for television. We think that in this tournament we're going to be able to accomplish that even greater because of the way we can bring our fans right inside the game, down low, show the speed, hear the sounds, and then the energy of the set design and some of the things that we're planning on doing will make it visually exciting, as well. 

"Listen, as you can hear, I'm super excited about the broadcasts and being able to do some different things throughout the whole tournament and giving our fans an amazing experience if they can't be here." 

Without the ambient crowd noise, the league will also have better on-ice sound to use, though it will be on a five-second delay thanks to the colorful words some coaches and players use. Still, there should be a chance to see and hear NHL games like never before. 

"Obviously there will be more sounds of the game because you'll hear more of what's taking place on the ice without the crowd noise," commissioner Gary Bettman said. "And in terms of set design and what the arena is going to look like from a broadcast standpoint, if you see and recall what we do at all our outdoor games and our other events, Steve and his group are extraordinarily creative.  

"We think this will make for a compelling television product." 

A new world for radio 

Meanwhile, listeners on the radio won't notice much of a difference, as those who turn on the Eldorado Scioto Downs Blue Jackets radio network throughout the state of Ohio will hear Bob McElligott describing the action as he always does with Dylan Tyrer on intermissions. 

But things will be quite different for McElligott, who will also have to call the games off a two-monitor setup from the bowels of Nationwide Arena. In a long career that has featured plenty of hockey and baseball games plus plenty of other sports, it's a new situation for McElligott, who has been at the mic on Blue Jackets broadcasts since 2009.  

"Thirty-plus years and I've never called a game off a TV," McElligott said before getting the chance to get used to the setup during Thursday night's exhibition game. "It will be a first for me. And to be honest, I think that's why I'm a little bit anxious and nervous about it. At the end of the day, it probably won't be a big deal, but because I've never done it before, I've thought a lot about it." 

McElligott added the biggest loss for him will be the camaraderie and off-the-cuff discussions with his colleagues that take place on game days, from which he's able to glean information that help inform the broadcasts.  

But at the end of the day, he has a job to do and will do it to the best of his ability no matter how different things are.  

"I am excited that we are back to work and I'm excited that there at least is going to be some kind of resolution to this season," he said. "When it stopped and we were on the verge, we didn't know how it was going to turn out -- Are you going to get into the playoffs or are you not? Where are you as an organization and where do you need to go? There were so many unanswered questions and we're going to get the answers to those questions now. 

"You're in the postseason. It's exciting. I can't wait to call postseason games again even though it's going to be different in the way that I call them." 

In addition, McElligott will host the #CBJin30 podcast brought to you by Telhio Credit Union weekdays during the postseason and also pair with Shelley to host The Inside Edge presented by Kia each Wednesday at 7 p.m. on 97.1 The Fan. 

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