“I can’t believe we start the playoffs on Wednesday”
I heard that about 5 times today from 5 different people when I was at Mellon Arena. Playoffs are an interesting time when you work for an NHL team due to the short time-frames you have to get work done and the uncertainty of the schedule. Whereas you may have weeks and even months to get ready for the home opener, in the playoffs you may only have a few days. Couple that with the overbooked month of March we seem to have every year, and the crush to get ready for Round 1 Game 1 can wear down even the most seasoned of veterans in the business.
Here’s a small inside look at preparation the TV and presentation people will deal with for the next two week to two month.
Lights, cameras, cryo-jets. If you were at the regular season games last week you saw some big lighting sets hanging from the rigging of the dome. We had brought in an additional 60 or so lighting fixtures fort the last game at Mellon and in a perfect world, they would still be hanging there.
But it’s not a perfect world and the circus came to town and all the lights went out. As I write, I’m sure the trucks are being unloaded with a completely new light rig that will hang over the ice at Mellon for one last playoff run. So the lights will be hung after practice. They all need rigged, focused, and ultimately programmed. You’ll have a lighting director and game producer probably at the arena until the wee hours – if not until dawn – syncing up the lights to the music for the opening sequences. Downstairs a video editor will be constantly churning out new versions of the opening video and running them upstairs so the programmer can make adjustments. Makes for a long night.
We also like to use the cryo-jets to blow smoke on either side of the runway when the team hits the ice for the start of the game, and those all need to be installed and tested for safety before Wednesday nights pregame. Any time that the Penguins change the music or the length of the song, adjustments have to be made to the lighting programming
Opening Videos. It’s not unusual to run the same opening video during the regular season for several months at a time with only minor changes. In the playoffs, it basically gets blown up every round, with significant changes from game to game. With playoffs, come storylines. And with storylines come better chances and ways to engage the home crowd. Add the fact that we also do a full video for full-ice projection and you are making serious modifications from game to game. Now remember the deal with the lighting. With every change to the video and music we make, the lighting programmers have to adjust as well. Lots of late nights at the arena for two months. Not to mention that these are very long animated files that have to be rendered. So it’s not unusual to work on something for hours, render it out for an hour, only to find that it doesn’t line up the way you need it to and have to go back and redo it. Sometimes 5 seconds of changes turn into 4 hours of waiting.
Trib Tron. We all love the big screen. It’s one of the best things about the Penguin community. But it’s another screen to do programming for. An editor will start with about a 10-15 minute loop of logos, videos, player headshots, etc at the start of the series. With each game, he adds recaps. And more videos. And then more games. And so on and so on. It’s a daily grind to keep the latest stuff playing out there. We also have all of the infrastructure additions we make to ensure that it’s a positive experience for everyone that attends.
If you recall, last year there were some problems with some of the transmission of home playoff games – with one game even going out for more than an entire period. Because we run extra cables down there tied directly into the scoreboard and trucks, the people on the lawn were the only people in the Pittsburgh DMA to see that game last year in its entirety. Fingers crossed to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Presentation changes. Corporate sponsorship is a big part of any pro sports team. It must be there for teams to survive. But with the way budgets work, there’s usually less sponsored elements in the playoffs than the regular season due to the fact that you can’t quantify how many home playoff games there will be. This changes our entire approach to the game. Not only does the music get harder, faster, edgier – but the videos do as well. There’s a palpable difference in the crowd during the playoffs and regular season. Even if you’ve only been to a few of each you can tell that. We try to play off that, to enhance it, to promote it. Plus every team wants to play off the story lines. The Max “Ssshhh” for example, the Fleury save on Ovechkin. Big moments, and they get a lot of play the rest of the playoffs.
This all sounds easy, but with the crunched schedule it’s a race to get done nearly every home game.
Scale it up. With the playoffs come more TV networks. With that comes more cameras, cables, TV Trucks, etc. Temporary camera positions are built. Extra cable has to be able run throughout every conceivable crack and crevice of Mellon Arena. One of the things I’m most looking forward to at Consol Energy Center is the face that we have an abundance of camera positions and cables, hopefully making the playoff prep a little easier.
Basically, it’s the regular season on steroids. For a regular season game against Ottawa we’d normally have two TV feeds – home and away. For playoffs, we’ll have home, away, US national, and Canadian national feeds in. And if you are playing Montreal you end up with French Canadian national on top of that. All of these TV networks, with all of this cabling, cramming into the same, undersized areas. It’s tight.
The uncertainty. We all love the NHL playoffs. There’s simply nothing better in my mind than watching these guys battle for two months for the Stanley Cup. If there is one thing that I could live without though, it’s the uncertainty of the schedule. Watching elimination road games with no idea if you have to prepare for another home game, or even if you have to start prepping for another round. You end up hitting refresh on web scoreboards every 15 seconds trying to find out when and where you play your next game. Because what happens in those road elimination games, win or lose, completely changes how your presentation will be for your next home game. And when a round is complete and you are waiting to see what day you play? Agonizing. 4 hours saying “why have they not released the schedule yet???” Texts back and forth until the wee hours. Using every source you have to try to get inside info. It’s the most brutal thing about the playoffs for me.
Everything else. The world doesn’t stop for the playoffs. In spite of it being our focus, it’s still business as usual with everything else. Web video (plus we travel crew to road playoff games), marketing stuff, new arena meetings, etc, etc. They all still keep rolling, and they all have to fit in somewhere.
In short, when you work in this business you are rarely “not busy”. Even the summers are packed. But during the playoffs on a daily basis, you find yourself saying things like, “how’d it get to be 8 o’clock already?” and “it’s 2 AM? What?”
So it’s one big long rush. Because you get so wrapped up into it all the highs and lows of the team affect you that much more. By the end of it, whether it was three weeks or two months, you are completely spent and ready for silence and a long vacation. But ultimately, it’s worth it. It’s the playoffs. It’s what it’s about. And it’s the best time of the year.