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Golden Knights-Avalanche, Flyers-Bruins games at Lake Tahoe must-see TV

Drones, robotic cameras will help NBC capture beauty, uniqueness of NHL Outdoors

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

STATELINE, Nev. -- Imagine flying a foot off the surface of Lake Tahoe at 70 miles per hour, soaring through the trees and getting a bird's-eye view of two outdoor NHL games with almost no one else around.

Now watch the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe this weekend.

NBC will use two drones to broadcast live footage for the first time -- plus a fixed-wing aircraft, robotic cameras, handheld cameras and usual game cameras -- when the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights play in the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS) and the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers play in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1, TVAS).

"You're going to see some shots that you've never seen in a hockey game before," NBC director Charlie Dammeyer said. 

The NHL long dreamed of playing in the wilderness to celebrate the most romantic roots of hockey, but it never made sense to play games without fans in attendance instead of drawing tens of thousands to a stadium.

Video: Mayer, Dammeyer on how Lake Tahoe will be broadcasted

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. If ever there were a time to do it, this is it. 

The NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe is a made-for-TV event, which provides a mix of opportunities, challenges and responsibilities. The NHL can play somewhere it never could with fans in the stands, NBC can try things it never could with fans in the stands, and the whole thing is tailored toward the fans who cannot be there.

"It's as close to a blank canvas as we've ever had for one of these outdoor games, and to me, that's the exciting part," Dammeyer said. "We still have to cover a hockey game. We still have to serve the fan. We still have to serve the viewer. That's what makes it unique. The only way for people to watch this is [on television], so it's our job to capture the best action, capture the game and oh, by the way, capture this great beauty that's around us."

Everything was planned with television in mind, starting with the location of the rink on the 18th fairway of the golf course at Edgewood Tahoe Resort, 50 paces from the water at its closest point. The game camera is at center ice facing the benches and the view of the pines, the lake and the Sierra Nevada.

Along with two cameras that isolate on players and another that focuses tightly on the puck, the game camera sits atop a deck made of scaffolding but decorated to look like it's made of stone. The deck is an independent structure to prevent shaking and almost 30 feet tall to mimic the camera angle in an arena, even though the cameras are closer than they would be in an arena.

"You don't want to mess up how people are viewing a game, right?" Dammeyer said. "Really, it's the game camera. That's how 90 percent of the game is ultimately viewed, is from the game camera, so we start with that position."

At the north end of the rink, facing the vista of South Lake Tahoe, are two camera towers decorated to look like fire lookout towers. At ice level surrounding the rink, there will be robotic cameras and handheld cameras. Normally, NBC couldn't use a camera called a jib because it is a large piece of equipment that would block fans in the stands.

Meanwhile, wireless cameras will roam the surrounding grounds, from the beach to the golf course.

A third-party vendor that usually films movies and commercials will fly the two drones. One is about 7-feet wide and heavy, and it will carry a cinematic, gyro-stabilized camera. Think of the other as the Connor McDavid of drones.

"It's fast," Dammeyer said. "I think it can go 70-some miles per hour. It can go a foot off the lake. It can fly through trees. It's going to give you the wow shot."

What neither drone will do, however, is fly over the ice. The drones will avoid flying over people. Dammeyer will rely on their high-tech, high-powered lenses and won't ask them to follow the puck. He will use them between the whistles.

"Normally, in an indoor game, I might go to a tight face on the bench or something like that," Dammeyer said, standing next to the rink. "Here, I may come right off this lake right over here and come right up to the face-off."

The fixed-wing aircraft will complete the picture with all-encompassing panoramas.

"I think it's our job to, A, cover the game and, B, really remind people of where we are," Dammeyer said. "It's unique, and I think if we don't embrace that and the uniqueness of us doing a hockey game on a golf course in the middle of winter on Lake Tahoe with no fans …

"I think that would be a mistake if we didn't embrace that, and we absolutely will embrace that."

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