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NBC brought out its best for Classic telecast

by John Kreiser
NBC brought out its "A" team and its "A" game for hockey's premiere regular-season event, the 2010 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic.

In the prelude to Friday's game, host Bob Costas did a superb job weaving together the mystique of Fenway Park with the aura that surrounds the NHL's annual outdoor game, combining with Mike Milbury and Darren Pang to set the stage for play-by-play man Mike Emrick and analyst Ed Olczyk.

Costas narrated brief features on Fenway and the Red Sox, as well as the background of outdoor hockey in Boston -- including quick snippets with Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette, a Boston-area native who noted that he grew up skating on the Charles River and had just taken his children to do so for the first time.

The pre-game show also went into some background on the Flyers-Bruins rivalry, dating to Philadelphia's win over Boston in the 1974 Stanley Cup Final, and featured interviews with the honorary captains -- Bobby Clarke of the Flyers and Bobby Orr of the Bruins. Seeing the two old rivals embrace at center ice, the battles of yesteryear now just warm memories, was a treat in itself.

So was the playing and singing of the U.S. National Anthem by New England native James Taylor, who accompanied himself on an acoustic guitar -- followed by a flyover by a B-2 bomber.

Then it was time for hockey -- and calling a game is a job few do better than Emrick, who not only describes the action in a manner that appeals to both hard-core hockey fans and those who might be watching hockey for the first time, but also does an excellent job giving his analysts space to work. Pang, working from ice level, noted early on that because of the lack of wind, there was no plan to have the teams switch ends midway through the third period as was done last year in Chicago. The camera also cut to Pang wearing football-style eye black strips as he recounted a conversation in which Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton said he was wearing the strips because he was having trouble tracking the puck.

In fact, with few scoring chances, much of the first period was a three-way discussion among Emrick, Olczyk and Pang on the condition of the ice ("pristine," according to Pang), some funny bounces (Emrick noted that the boards were the same ones used in 1997, when the NHL played games in Japan) and the goaltender's differing perspective in playing outdoors. One of Emrick's gifts is that he is able to keep such conversations going without detracting from the play-by-play.

Pang also brought a new touch to the usual between-periods player interview, talking to Philadelphia's Dan Carcillo about his first-period scrap with Boston's Scott Thornton (the first ever in an NHL outdoor game) as the two skated off the ice following the opening 20 minutes. He did the same with Boston's 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara after the second period -- setting up one of the great height disparities in broadcast history.

Between the first two periods, NBC offered an interesting feature with no right answer: Which is the better sports city -- Boston or Philadelphia? Costas also talked with former Red Sox and Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling (wearing a Bruins jersey). Schilling wouldn't cast a vote either way, but noted that the cities "share a common bond -- their intense dislike of New York" and that the fans in both cities "eat, sleep and breathe their teams."

In discussing the first-period stats, which showed plenty of hits (27) but no goals and only 15 combined shots, Emrick noted accurately that, "when hits outnumber shots, it's Bruins-Flyers hockey."

When the Flyers opened the scoring on Danny Syvret's first NHL goal at 4:42, Olczyk and Pang jumped right on the fact that Boston goaltender Tim Thomas' move to push Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell out of the way wound up costing him. "Clearly, Tim Thomas wasn't focused on the puck," noted Pang, a former goaltender. In viewing the replay, which showed Thomas eschewing the puck to take a whack at Hartnell, Olczyk said Thomas "tried to get even. That's not the time."

Between the second and third periods, NBC offered a feature honoring the 30th anniversary of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," with Al Michaels (who made the famous "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" call) talking with Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig, followed by a live interview with Boston natives Craig, Jack O'Callahan and Dave Silk. "I think we had a lot better team than people thought," Craig said. When asked by Costas how many times Team USA could have beaten the 1980 Soviet squad in a 20-game series, Silk replied, "I don't think we could beat them at all. Luckily we didn't have to."

NBC's camera work, excellent all day, was sharp early in the third period when Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton misplayed an 80-foot shot by Marco Sturm, only to get a break when the puck trickled through his pads and pinged the post to his left. Fans got a good view on a couple of quick replays that didn't disrupt the flow of the telecast but combined with Pang's sharp-eyed analysis to show how lucky Leighton was.

Emrick was at his best in the final minutes as the Bruins scrambled for the tying goal. When they got it with 2:18 remaining, Emrick was quick to tell viewers "Recchi on a tip, and it's 1-1," after which Olczyk quickly and accurately broke down the play, showing Mark Recchi get a piece of Derek Morris' power-play shot to tie the game.

Emrick punctuated the game with his trademark "Score!" call when Marco Sturm's tip-in 1:57 into overtime won the game -- then went silent and let the crowd tell the story. After the noise subsided, Olczyk again quickly broke down the play that ended with Sturm tipping Patrice Bergeron's pass behind Leighton.

"I'm still shaking here," Sturm told Pang in a quick on-ice interview. "I hope I have a chance to do it again. Overall was a great experience."

That just about sums up the day for hockey fans, too.
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