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Behind the Scenes of the Virtual NHL Draft

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

The 2020 NHL Draft, which was held virtually on Oct. 6 and 7, was unique and unprecedented. But Penguins staffers across numerous departments did a terrific job of making sure everything went smoothly and that the process was successful. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how it all came together.

The Penguins worked closely with the NHL to build a remote setup at PPG Paints Arena, using conference rooms on the suite level to establish operations. 

General manager Jim Rutherford set up in one conference room with director of amateur scouting Patrik Allvin, assistant general manager Jason Karmanos (who was recently named general manager of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton), assistant WBS general manager and hockey operations manager Erik Heasley, and director of hockey research Sam Ventura.

Hockey operations executive assistant Michele Colaianni handled all of the logistics, like making sure the war room was set up with everything the staff needed and working with team chef Geoff Straub to provide the meals. 

Tweet from @penguins: 📍 Penguins Draft Central pic.twitter.com/yGXre7MLEc

Meanwhile, the Penguins communications staff and PensTV producers set up in the adjacent conference room, while members of the technology department were across the hall.  

Once that setup was determined, the process of outfitting it began with senior systems administrator Dan Lange working with the league to get all of the technological pieces in place for a full remote broadcast. 

The league sent a physical server - a big black box - that allowed them to send the Penguins two feeds. One was the live TV feed, which had no delay, and the other was the draft board feed.

"Basically, the NHL streamed to their own server that they sent us," Lange said. "We provided Internet, we provided power and basically provided hands on the ground for anything that they needed to do."

The most difficult technical challenge for Lange and fellow senior systems administrator Jason Henry was splitting that live TV feed between the conference rooms and anyone else in the building who needed it, so that they could customize the sound as they chose.

The war room had both feeds, and the technology department also set up two PC laptops in front of Allvin that had WebEx meetings with two sets of scouts. One was for the regional amateur scouts, and one was for the global crossover scouts (with the latter group able to hop back and forth between the rooms). 

The virtual meetings were set up for the entire day, so that Allvin and the crew could switch back and forth and mute and get in touch with their scouts scattered all over the world as need be.

"Moderating those rooms was my major function in case there are any problems," Lange said. "Basically, helping them if they have any issues - if they couldn't get connected, if their cell phone didn't have service, whatever it may be."

In the leadup to the Penguins' first pick of the day, where they ended up taking Finnish goaltender Joel Blomqvist in the second round with the 52nd overall selection, Allvin got European scouts Petri Pakaslahti and Tommy Westlund in the room to confirm that they were on board.

With Pakaslahti based in Finland, which is seven hours ahead, and Westlund based in Sweden, which is six hours ahead, it was already late into the evening for them. They were wide awake at that point, though Pakaslahti said that became a struggle as the later rounds stretched on. 

"It took forever, it felt like," he said "I tried to stay awake (laughs)."

The video production staff set up a robotic camera called a PTZ (which means Pan, Tilt and Zoom) set up in that room so that they could provide video and audio to the networks while staying out of the room as much as possible for health and safety reasons. They also had two other cameras and a GoPro set up to capture behind-the-scenes coverage for internal use. 

PensTV producer Mark Cottington, watching that feed in the adjacent conference room and operating the PTZ with a TriCaster that was plugged into the server, communicated with the NHL by using an app called Unity.

"All 31 teams and their production staffs were on it, so we could push to talk to each other if they wanted a wide shot, a tight shot, whatever it may be," Cottington said. "The league would tell me things like, hey, can you give me a wide shot of the war room, can you give me a tight shot of the podium, or can you open and close the podium mic when they make a pick so it's not live the entire time."

When the Detroit Red Wings were on the clock for the 51st overall selection, the NHL checked in with Cottington to make sure he was ready. That's when PensTV producer Ryan Yorgen entered the war room to put an IFB (interruptible foldback) on Allvin as he prepared to make the pick.  

IFB is often facilitated using an earpiece that people wear to get cues, feedback or direction from their control rooms, which is exactly what Allvin received from the NHL while he stood at a podium that had been set up for him.

"He was able to hear the guy saying, okay, we're coming to you in 30 seconds," Cottington said. "Then he would say 'all right, go Patrik, make your pick.'" 

Allvin handled it like a pro, though he admitted that it was a little bit of an awkward process.

"You want to see the happiness for the players and their families," he said. "Ideally you want to have them up to the suite and meet them, talk to them, get to see how happy they are for this big day. So that's a little bit sad."

Normally, Penguins vice president of communications Jen Bullano Ridgley is the one bringing the players and their families up to the suite after meeting them in person on the draft floor and taking them through a gamut that includes autograph signing, multiple image rooms (portraits and Upper Deck) and media interviews.

But since teams couldn't meet players in person this year, the NHL sent clubs a list of contact information for over 300 prospects, and Bullano Ridgley and Heasley reached out to the players over text after each pick was made.

There was some concern about whether attempts from the Penguins to get in touch with them would get lost among the swarm of congratulatory text, so agents' contact information was provided as well.

 Fortunately, there were no real issues. Clang, who was drafted with the 77th overall pick, didn't respond for a couple of hours - but for good reason. He was actually in the middle of playing a game for Kristianstads IK of HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden's second-highest professional league - stopping 31 of 34 shots in a 3-2 loss.

Tweet from @PenguinsPR: When your game goes to overtime and you don���t know you���ve been drafted... pic.twitter.com/iZjx6jXkHl

The draft ended to a lot less fanfare than normal. Usually, all of the scouts are together celebrating after what Allvin called 'graduation' after a lot of hard work, and he felt their absence. But while the process was different, the result was ultimately the same - the Penguins added five new players into the organization that they're thrilled about (to view the 2020 Draft Hub, click here.)

"You're missing the staff members, you really want to chat and get the opportunity to talk to them here," Allvin said. "I know that they want to be here, it's a big day for them. And obviously, it took some time, too. So it's almost like you lost patience a little bit. But otherwise, I thought overall the NHL did a good job and so did everyone here."

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