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HOCKEY NIGHT IN LA

by Royal Reign / Los Angeles Kings
In hockey, the players aren’t the only ones working hard to light the red lamp. The Kings have a broadcast team that is single-minded in their determination to make sure that once the red light on the camera illuminates and the game is beamed into living rooms throughout Los Angeles, local hockey fans feel like they’ve scored.

The most visible member of the broadcast team, of course, is play-by-play announcer Bob Miller. The Hall of Fame broadcaster is front and center for most of the three-hour broadcast. But while Miller and color commentator Jim Fox are the front men, there is an entire band backing them up -- and like any band playing STAPLES Center, sound checks start early. After all, face-off might be at 7:30 p.m., but face time starts well before that, with an afternoon production meeting to go over that night’s broadcast.

“On the day of a game we’ll meet at about three hours ahead of the game,” Miller says. “The meeting will be at STAPLES Center, and it will involve Bob Borgen, the producer; Mike Hassan, the director; as well as all the other people who are involved in the telecast.” The meeting will map out that evening’s performance, from overture to curtain call.

“We go over everything,” Miller says. “We may have to tape some opening billboards, we may have to tape some commercial drop-ins, we may tape comments from a player or interview with a player. Then we go over what’s going to go on between periods, whom I’m going to throw it to at the end of a period, and what’s going to go on during the intermission. We’ll talk about what happens at the end of the game.”

For Miller, a gameday begins at home where he does — what else — his homework. When he arrives at STAPLES Center late in the afternoon, he joins the other members of the broadcast team who have been making initial preparations on site.

“Truck people,” as producer Bob Borgen refers to himself and his co-workers who are ensconced the semi-trailer that serves as the broadcast’s command center. If you work in the truck, your workday starts six hours before the first puck drops.

“That’s when cameras start setting up,” Borgen says, “tape guys start setting up video packages, and graphics sets up all their graphics, preparing for any number of things that may or may not happen in the game.”

Hundreds of graphics will be loaded up for the game, anticipating a variety of eventualities that include everything from milestone achievements to winning streaks to hat tricks. Only a fraction of those graphics will actually make their way to your TV screen.

Likewise, much of the information Miller compiles on index cards will go unused. So steeped is Miller in hockey that facts, figures and personal anecdotes have become second nature to him. He easily drops a player’s alma mater, hometown or career stats as if he were talking about the achievements of his own children. In that sense, Miller has been preparing for each game for years.

“There is absolutely no substitute for preparation,” Miller says. “That’s probably true in any business. You want to be prepared for your work. There’s a lot of preparation that might not get used, but you want to be ready for anything. If the glass breaks, you know you’ve got material to rely on.”

Hockey’s pace insists a play-by-play announcer commit much of his research to memory, but Miller likes to refer to his hard copy during stoppages in play.

“I make out a sheet in addition to the spotting cards that I have and its something that I update for every game,” Miller says. “It’s got the Kings on one side, their current record, home and road record, their power play and penalty killing, goaltender’s records, and then any notes about players who are on scoring streaks or something like that. When something happens in a game (like a milestone), I can simply refer to that sheet and be up to date on it.”

Members of the Kings’ telecast crew really are like a band or an orchestra, with each individual bringing a unique element that blends together to create a pitch perfect concert. There is however, one inalterable truth that separates the two endeavors: regardless of how much time they spend rehearsing, members of a hockey telecast have no idea what notes they’ll be playing until they are actually called upon to hit them.

During a hockey telecast, a producer is rather like the conductor, and the game’s vagaries insist he be on his toes. In addition to setting a tempo and providing leadership, the producer is charged with deciding how best to tell the story of a game as it unfolds from beginning to end. The producer is also responsible for deciding what happens when nothing is happening. That could mean replaying a great save or a particularly devastating body check. Or, a producer might determine that a close up of a coach, or a crowd shot, is the most effective way to convey the game’s emotion.

Because Fox, the Kings’ analyst, is so adroit at breaking down the game’s X’s and O’s, Borgen often decides a particular play or turning point needs to be telestrated. Regardless of what the producer’s choice is, he must give the announcers advance notice so they can provide words to go with his pictures. Borgen has the capability to speak to Miller or Fox together or separately.

“Everyone has to be in synch,” Borgen says. “There are changes all the time. Whatever happens in the game takes you in a different direction.”

As director Hassan says, “Televising a hockey is like controlled chaos.”

In his role as the broadcast’s director, Hassan is responsible calling the shots and determining what camera angle appears on screen. Stationed in the truck, Hassan keeps his eyes focused on a bank of six monitors, each displaying a different angle of the game. At any given moment, it’s up to him to decide which angle offers the fans at home the best perspective of the action.

Though Hassan must be prepared, much of his work comes down to knowing the game.

“There are certain things you can prepare for,” Hassan says. “You have to know the players, but there are a lot of other things that come down to instincts and split-second decisions.” Transmitting a live hockey game into living rooms across the Southland is largely a testament to technology. It takes a human element, however, to bring all the elements together. In calling the fast-paced action in his familiar crisp, nuanced delivery, Miller is merely drawing on one aspect of the communication skills that are so vital to his job.

“In the booth,” Miller says, “we have a two-way communication between Bob Borgen and I and that’s really important. We can talk, and so if I have an interesting comment about a player, I can ask Bob if he can get me a shot of him.”

Remember how Wayne Gretzky always seemed to know where to find longtime teammate Jari Kurri for the one-timer? Borgen and Miller certainly do. They’ve worked together long enough that they know one another’s tendencies and preferences. That familiarity goes a long way toward the success of the broadcast.

“After working together 16 or 17 years,” Borgen says, “a lot of what we do is understood in shorthand.”

Time and experience have given Miller a sixth sense around the Kings and the NHL. Because he has lived through much of the franchise’s history, he can pull an anecdote or historical reference out of thin air. But, because NHL rosters are in a constant state of flux, and rules change on an annual basis, a play-by-play announcer must be current.

Miller has been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he’s never been one for ivory towers. So Miller has a question that needs answering, he’ll go right to the source.

“If I’m not sure about a name pronunciation, I’ll go to the player and ask him directly,” Miller says. “Sometimes, with a player from Europe, he will say his name in a dialect that I can’t do. In a case like that, the most reliable place to go is the visiting teams announcers, and I’ll ask them how they are pronouncing and say it the same way they do.” In today’s world of all access, all the time, information is easier to come by, but harder to manage.

“Years ago, we got the NHL stats every Monday, and we didn’t get them again until the next Monday. I had to go through and update our opponents’ statistics before every game. Now, we get what every team has done short-handed, on the power play, on the penalty kill. We get stats on everything.”

Miller also likes to surf the Internet, perusing local newspapers for stories on upcoming opponents. The glut of information means one of the most important roles he plays is that of editor.

“You’d have hours and hours of material if you went through everything,” he says. “You learn that there are certain things that are going to be important in a telecast.”

Determining what makes it onto the broadcast is never an easy assignment. It requires preparation, and lots of it, mixed in with experience and good judgment. The hours are long and, oftentimes, the capricious nature of live sports can leave a production crew’s best-laid plans unrealized. Still, there’s no place else the members of the Kings’ broadcast team would rather be.

When the red light goes on, so do they.

-Written by Doug Ward for the Royal Reign

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