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Ulmer's Game Day Blog: Leafs vs. Panthers

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Paul Maurice Morning Skate | Ulmer's Rant - Darcy Tucker

3:30 p.m.

The nerve centre of a broadcast that brings a hockey game to hundreds of thousands of households is a non-descript, well kept truck, parked in a corner of Air Canada Centre basement so desolate, Magellan couldn’t find it.

Television producers aren’t that far removed from teenaged boys. They dote on their vehicles, vacuum and polish the chrome. What do you use to keep a $15 million truck sparkling? Windex.

“We call them truck mothers, always fussing over them” said Dave Schick, technical producer and the engineer in charge of just about everything this rented truck will need to carry the Leafs and Florida Panthers game to the denizens of Leafs Nation tonight.

Welcome to the subterranean world of television production, where the most important piece of equipment in the arena gets the worst parking spot, where technology that would make NASA green is deployed to carry as many elements of a sometimes stone age game to as many plush living rooms as possible.

Kilometres of cable, specialists in every discipline. At 2 p.m., five-and-a-half hours before game time, tape operator Craig McDonald is loading highlight combinations into his computer. By game time, he will have four potential packages of every Leafs for use by director Jacques Primeau and producer Mark Askin. While four cameras will provide the footage for as much as 85 percent of life action, Primeau will have the use of 18 different cameras.

Howard Baggley’s audio board contains a sea of toggles with rows of cheap masking tape deployed as makeshift labels.

Tonight’s game blog comes from the bunker. Out of sight and hearing distance, the game exists as a rumour, piped in through cameras and microphones. What comes out in your television, in all its high-definition glory, is the soup served in your house by the boys in the truck.

6:28 p.m.

It is about two hours before game time and things have been ratcheted up a notch.  Graphics fill most screens. Cameras, left on but not manned, bring back unoccupied, glittering ice and the floor of a penalty box. There are problems locating the bug, a header known as the hat in the U.S. but it gets worked out.

Producer Mark Askin has 150 highlight packs on events, flashbacks and 100 graphics on players, team stats, ready to go.

Askin rejects the notion that the hothouse of a live sports broadcast is thinly-organized chaos.

“It’s not chaos if you do the necessary preparation,” he said.

When he was younger, Askin would fulminate over broadcasts until 3:30 in the morning.  He’s mellowed.

“The good thing is I have a  long drive home to Whitby. Sometimes I even get straight to sleep.”

6:41 p.m.

Askin and on-air talent Joe Bowen are kicking around storyline ideas. Guy Charron, the Panthers’ assistant has played over 700 games and not made the playoffs. The Panthers haven’t made the post-season since the Millenium. Panthers ace Olli Jokinen is a point away from being the Panthers all-time points leader. He now sits a point behind Scott Mellanby. Leaf fans, having watched the Mats Sundin/Darryl Sittler countdown, can relate.

7:23 p.m.

The full intro, voiced by Bowen, blends the themes of hope, rebound and disappointment with a barrage of video. “That is your story line coming into the game,” Askin explains. “ In most shows, that’s the case but in this show, there are so many things to watch, you want to give the viewer all kinds or reasons.”

Fifteen minutes to air.

8:25 p.m.

“Stand by music, stand by font.  Have a good show, everybody,”

Those are the words from Askin that prompt the countdown to air. Say what you want about Askin, he knows his numbers forwards and backwards.

The intro is montage of images, sticks, players putting their pads on, Alexei Ponikarovsky reaching for his shoulder pads, Mats Sundin drinking Gatorade. Then its on to highlight bursts including Steven Weiss of the Panthers and Tomas Kaberle. It is a dizzying display of visual pyrotechnics. Over here, former Leaf Bob Nevin signing autographs, over there Jason Blake stretching outside the dressing room. You may think all of this is incidental. None of it, however, is accidental.

The anthem singer bombs. It does not go unnoticed in the truck. Really, really does not go unnoticed.

What follows is a blizzard of flying graphics and highlight packs. Askin feeds the on-air people, making sure that Bob McGill, the rookie member of the broadcast team and perched at ice-level is well positioned to make maximum impact.  

The Panthers go up 2-0 by the midway point of the period. Nothing changes. There is a constant commentary in the truck, “Good hit by Tucker,” “their goalie looks extremely confident. Great defensive zone coverage.”  Everybody seems to want to see the Leafs win but a good play is acknowledged no matter the colour of sweater.

9:15 p.m.

Askin’s right-hand man is director Jacques Primeau. The two are linear opposites. Askin is outgoing, Primeau quieter. Askin is a Toronto guy, Primeau grew up in Montreal.

Expecting Askin to give the camera directions switch the central images while monitoring the flow of the game would be like asking him to surf and knit at the same time. Askin spends more time in dialogue with the colorman Greg Millen as well as eye-on-the-ice guy Bob McGill. Giving the final command on what you see usually falls to Primeau.

Primeau was a hockey player who got the hint when he was offered a job in the East Coast Hockey League. He found a way to stick in the business as an employee with McLaren Advertising in Montreal, a company tied into the NHL. He has done most of the jobs, directed news, and worked in radio with the Montreal Canadiens.

“Your first dream is to be a player,” he said. “But this is definitely second best.”

Jason’s Blake’s goal cuts the margin to 2-1.

Bryan McCabe scores a a power play goal. Askin gives sure the camera lingers while McCabe, under siege by the media, has his moment of congratulations with teammates. It’s a telling picture and the extra few seconds make for a better telling. Tie game.

Askin orders up the saves Leaf goalie Vesa Toskala delivered to keep the game close.  A few minutes later, Askin shows a fine defensive sequence by McCabe.

10:12 p.m.

Bowen holds the piece about Jokinen and Guy Charon until now. There are 12 minutes left to play. “We’ve got to start thinking about the three stars,” said Askin. A few minutes later, a preliminary list is sent upstairs. Bryan McCabe, Mats Sundin and Nathan Horton.

The Leafs truck is high-definition. It’s magical technology. Panthers coach Jacques Martin is transformed from a dour, tight-lipped lifer into a mirthful, puckish jockster by high-def. Who knew?

The list evolves to Toskala, Horton, McCabe.

Nik Antropov scores the winner with about 30 seconds left. The truck explodes.  Askin’s first job amidst the bedlam is the three stars. The various replays unfold without a hitch. The final three stars are Toskala, Horton and Antropov.

The story tonight was Antropov, the Leafs’ leader with six goals, and the fine work by Toskala who got the heel of his stick on a shot. Matt Stajan grabs the puck, congratulates everyone within reach and slaps the disc into Toskala’s goal.

There are final details, a little post-game analysis, Toskala’s on-ice interview, three-stars, Fan Favourite feature. It has not been a perfect broadcast, more like 99 per cent. The fan at home wouldn’t  know what went wrong.  “Is there such a thing as a perfect night?” Askin repeats. “Nope.”

He should sleep well tonight.

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