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To see what makes the revamped Hockey Night in Canada tick, media reporter James Bradshaw looks beyond the smooth-talking analysts, the spherical cameras and the gleaming, $4.5-million set to find controlled chaos – or what HNIC staffers refer to as 'the zoo'

Reading time 10 minutes
Behind the scenes
at Hockey Night in Canada
Senior producer Sherali Najak (left) and director Paul Hemming in the broadcast truck. (Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail)

Welcome to the zoo,” George Stroumboulopoulos says, shaking a reporter’s hand on the gleaming, glowing set of Hockey Night in Canada.

It’s Saturday, Dec. 6, the Vancouver Canucks are in Toronto to face the Maple Leafs, and the energetic host isn’t the first to describe the sprawling operation that broadcasts to millions of Canadians each week this way.

But on the $4.5-million set atop the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters, the “zoo” label seems a poor fit. This is the polished face of hockey broadcasting. Less than a dozen people work calmly with cameras and cables, the sharply dressed analysts speak confidently into lapel microphones, and the 11,000-square-foot set swallows up sounds. Across the downtown core, and in cities around the country, a matrix of nerve centres are revving to life to produce what is likely the most complicated feat of broadcasting in Canada, involving dozens of cameras and hundreds of staff.

And it repeats every Saturday, nine months a year.

Now in its 63rd season, Hockey Night in Canada has only grown more complex thanks to Rogers Communications Inc.’s $5.2-billion deal to land rights to the storied program and hundreds of other national games for the next 12 years. To maintain some continuity, Rogers sealed a four-year pact to keep the CBC and some of its experienced staff in the fold. Then it ramped up the number of national games aired across several networks – as many as seven on a Saturday – promising fans more hockey than ever before.

This is live TV. I didn’t project this when I had my morning coffee.
Hockey Night director Paul Hemming

The CBC’s Toronto control room is linked with master controls at the City network on Lakeshore Boulevard and at Sportsnet headquarters on Mount Pleasant Road. Broadcast trucks nestled into the bowels of the arenas hosting each game feed into those three hubs, linked by kilometres of cable.

“When I saw the engineering diagrams for it, that was the only time I’ve ever been frightened,” said Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL for Rogers. “The number of potential places for failure were gigantic.”

There have been few glitches so far, thanks to careful scheduling that makes maximum use of staff and infrastructure. The production truck inside the Air Canada Centre for the Canucks-Leafs showdown was wheeled in the night before for the Toronto Raptors’ loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The next morning, Monday, Dec. 7, it left for Montreal to cover Jean Béliveau’s funeral.

“We’re really stretching the limits of what’s available,” says Ed Hall, executive producer of game productions.

So far, the response from viewers has been mixed – “anywhere from excited to outraged” and more recently, “from excited to comfortable to resignation,” Mr. Moore said. A substantial bump in ratings promised to advertisers has yet to materialize: Average audiences for Saturday games in the Eastern time zone have grown by 1 per cent from last year, while Western game ratings are down 17 per cent. Even so, Mr. Moore says Rogers has achieved its main goal of leapfrogging TSN as “the number one sports brand in Canada.”

Morning routines

Hockey Night's Jim Hughson sits with Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Dave Nonis during the Maple Leafs' morning skate. (Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail)

The day begins relatively quietly, around 10 a.m.

The Hockey Night crew gathers for the two teams’ morning skates, most still in jeans, clutching cups of coffee. They huddle in groups with scouts, coaches and assorted team brass. It is a time to pick up tidbits of information and feel out the tone for the game to come.

Up in the seats, Hockey Night play-by-play man Jim Hughson sits for a lengthy chat with Leafs general manager Dave Nonis. Before long, team president Brendan Shanahan joins in.

“It’s like a hockey fraternity,” says Glenn Healy, the former Leafs and New York Rangers goalie turned broadcaster, who will provide colour commentary from between the benches.

Ultimately, the broadcasters are hunting for the storylines that make one game feel different from every other. Toronto’s top line has struggled lately (a recurring theme); the Canucks have five Ontario-raised players returning to play in front of family and friends (defenceman Chris Tanev bought 30 tickets); Vancouver goalie Ryan Miller has a habit of dominating the Leafs.

The rink also needs to be primed. Rogers banked on technology to provide new angles on the game, and on this night, 29 cameras will track the action (TSN’s Grey Cup coverage had 33). Eight are robotic, including small, spherical cameras known as “cue balls” wedged into cutouts in the boards, or near the players’ knees on the bench.

Two engineers in the lower bowl rig up the Sky Cam, a new addition that zips through the air above the fans, suspended from four thin cables. A pilot controls the camera’s movement while an operator handles the lens, and it moves and hovers based on “Cartesian co-ordinates,” as one engineer puts it. At an NFL football game, it can move in all directions over the field, on the X, Y and Z axes. For hockey games, because of the scoreboard and cables holding up protective netting above the rink, the Sky Cam can only move left to right on one side.

One operator controls the Sky Cam’s movement, another the lens

Down below in the broadcast truck – a long trailer jammed full of monitors, wires and switchboards – 42 engineers and technicians go through their own checklists for sounds, signals and video. The truck has a tape room, “though ironically there’s basically no tape,” Hall says, as it’s all gone digital. Tape machines can hold 10,000 clips each, and are labelled with colours, like purple and silver. The live cameras are tagged with numbers to avoid confusion.

The video crew can command replays instantly – if a player gets a breakaway in the neutral zone, they can have it cued up before he hits the blue line. But in the morning, they work through a list of 17 past clips to have in hand, including Leafs great Mats Sundin’s return to Toronto as a member of the Canucks in 2009, and goalie highlights from recent meetings between the two teams.

On one machine, EVS operator Andrew Mackison’s hands dance quickly. Known in the truck as “Slappy“ (everyone goes by nicknames), he cuts video clips from a handful of games to make a package showing past fights between Leafs sniper Phil Kessel and Canucks agitator Alex Burrows, in case tempers flare again.

On game day, says senior prodcer Sherali Najak, “the hockey players have a routine. So does everybody involved in hockey.”

Setting the stage

Workers prepare on the set for the airing of Hockey Night in Canada. (Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail)

By mid-afternoon, preparations are in full swing.

At the CBC studio, Stroumboulopoulos and analysts Nick Kypreos and Kelly Hrudey walk through rehearsals at the new “demo wall,” where LED video monitors in the wall and floor can roll footage or be programmed to resemble an ice rink. In some segments, they act out their insights, hockey sticks in hand.

The new set encourages “a lot of movement in the studio,” says producer Brian Spear, who quarterbacks the broadcast from a CBC control room. “We run through it a couple of times, probably, throughout the afternoon.”

The aim is to tap former players like Kypreos and Hrudey for their expertise. On a recent broadcast, Kypreos demonstrated faceoffs with Hall of Fame centre Adam Oates. “I’m 48 years old and Adam’s talking faceoffs and I feel like I’m learning something for the first time,” Kypreos says.

'Good evening and welcome to Hockey Night in Canada'

Stroumboulopoulos also darts across the set to his trademark red chairs to pre-tape an interview for the first intermission with veteran broadcasters Bob Cole and Dick Irvin, reminiscing about Jean Béliveau, the Montreal Canadians legend who died earlier in the week, aged 83. The tone is appropriately nostalgic.

Hiring Stroumboulopoulos as the new host to replace Ron MacLean is perhaps the most noticeable change in the broadcast. He was chosen largely for his reputation as an in-depth interviewer, and he thinks the new format needs a year to 18 months to settle in. But he wants the studio segments to be “fun” and to get players “to be themselves” on camera, all the while insisting he has no problem pushing guests out of their comfort zones if the chats get too cozy.

“I want what’s best for the audience. And what’s best for the audience is to feel like they didn’t waste the last four minutes of their life. And sometimes television can be a waste of your time if it’s not done authentically, if it’s not done with any sense of veracity,” he says. “I want a truth.”

Showtime at mission control

As host George Stroumboulopoulos and analyst Nick Kypreos get ready for broadcast, the tension is rising. (Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail)

The pre-game shows – first at 5 p.m., then at 6:30 p.m. with Stroumboulopoulos – are the most scripted part of the broadcast. But in the CBC control room, where about 15 staff are seated in two rows, the tension level is rising.

Opening montages roll on cue, and each component is carefully timed. In a dark room lit by flickering screens and glowing control panels, associate director Candice Smith clutches an old-fashioned metal stopwatch as reporter David Amber interviews Canucks captain Henrik Sedin before the game. She counts into her headset, “Thank you in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …” and, on cue, the interview wraps with Sedin’s polite “Thank you.”

All around her, a jumble of voices call commands such as “Roll purple!” into headsets. There’s cursing. There’s control room lingo: “Do you want a Kadri waterfall in there?” And there’s haggling: “If you can keep it to like 30 or 45 [seconds], it would help me out,” Spear tells studio analyst Elliotte Friedman, limiting a segment’s length.

As the Béliveau interview winds down on air, the control room faces its first real twist when a puck strikes Canadiens defenceman Tom Gilbert in the head during the warmup at the Habs’s game in Dallas. “I want to show that,” Spear calls out. His team rushes to find a replay, learn whether Gilbert was wearing a helmet, and confirm that he’ll still play. Moments later, Friedman reports the mishap on air.

At 7:02 p.m. sharp, the four networks airing early games – CBC, City, Sportsnet and FX Canada – join one national feed for an introductory montage setting up each contest. Soon after, they splinter again for the various puck drops, and the broadcast trucks take over.

‘Organized chaos’

Hiring Stroumboulopoulos as the new host to replace Ron MacLean is the most noticeable change in the broadcast. Don Cherry hosts Coach's Corner.

The real drama of broadcasting hockey is in the truck. On dozens of screens, the action moves fast.

Camera angles change. Replays are cued up. Close-ups of coaches or players are directed. And each movement is called at high speed into headsets by producer Najak and director Paul Hemming, who sits to his right.

The headsets link the two men not only to camera operators, but also to Hughson and colour commentator Craig Simpson in the broadcast booth, as well as Amber at ice level. Healy feeds in tidbits from his outpost between the benches, where he can see the play up close and overhear chatter between players – much of which isn’t suitable to broadcast.

“The mute button gets pushed a lot,” Healy says, chuckling. “There’s a lot that goes on that if Canada hears it, we have a different opinion of our heroes.”

Najak is a ball of energy at all times, rattling off a stream of colours and numbers indicating which cameras and replays to use.

“It is organized chaos,” he says, likening his role to air traffic controlling, though he’s careful to note that “it means a hell of a lot more” when airplanes are involved.

At 5:39 of the second period, the simmering energy in the truck explodes when Joffrey Lupul scores to give the Leafs a 4-0 lead, their second goal in a minute and 23 seconds. The TV audience sees a smooth sequence of angles and replays.

In the truck, Najak and Hemming’s shouts blur together, and it sounds something like this for the next 30 seconds:

“Scored! who scored? Ready 1 take 1 Lupul ready 4 take 4 show me ready 3 take 3 ready 6 take 6 ready Okay 1 take 1 ready 2 take 2 ready 5 take 5 ready silver goalie change goalie change! Wait for the goalie change. Ready 1 take 1 I’ve got it. Ready 2 take 2. Show me Lack. Ready 3 take 3. Ready 8, stay tight eh, take 8. I want to see the goalie exchange. Wider for the goalie exchange! Ready 3 take 3. Yep, you’ve got it. Stay tight Terry. Head to toe Rob. Ready 8 take 8.”

Watch Najak and Hemming respond to a Leaf goal

Canucks goalie Ryan Miller is pulled from the game. In a calmer moment, Najak begins weaving a storyline to highlight this unexpected twist. “You know what would make the Bernier pack sexy is the Bernier saves and Miller on the bench,” he says. “It’s the yin and yang.”

Another wild card emerges when rink maintenance delays the start of the third period. It’s unclear how long the delay will last, and empty time is a live broadcast’s enemy. “They’re fixing the door,” Hemming says. “We’ve got tons of time.”

The truck crew cycles through shots of the repairs in progress, the coaches and players at the benches, out-of-town updates on the Budweiser Red Light Scoreboard, then breaks to commercials. But still the delay drags on – five minutes, six minutes. Finally, after seven minutes and 21 seconds of improvisation in the truck, play resumes.

“This is live TV,” Hemming says. “I didn’t project this when I had my morning coffee.”

A juggling act

Senior producer Sherali Najak Najak is a ball of energy at all times, rattling off a stream of colours and numbers indicating which cameras and replays to use. (Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail)

Nearly an hour later, the effects of the unexpected delay at the Air Canada Centre reach the control room at CBC, as Spear and his team tackle the trickiest task of any Saturday night: juggling the end of each game to join the various networks together ahead of the 10 p.m. game, which has Calgary hosting San Jose.

The first game to finish is the Red Wings beating the Rangers. But there’s a glitch. Its audience is set to switch over to see the end of Toronto’s contest, and a countdown has begun, when someone in the control room calls out: There’s been a whistle in Toronto, which is going to a commercial break. The screen is split between feeds from Detroit and Toronto, and one fades to black too soon.

“Keep your shot up!” Spear says, cursing.

But there’s no time to dwell on the hiccup. Thanks to Toronto’s maintenance delay, the Habs game in Dallas has caught up with the Leafs’ contest. Both are in their dying minutes, and it isn’t clear which will finish first.

“One whistle can throw you right off,” says Mitch Kerzner, executive producer, studio, for Sportsnet NHL. So can an overtime period or a late goal.

Andrew "Slappy" Mackison, an EVS operator, prepares a replay

The Leafs game ends first, with the Dallas tilt not far behind, and both feeds break to commercials. “You’ve got to let me know how far apart they are and I’ll figure out what to do,” Spear says to Smith, the associate director, who does some fast math.

The Dallas-Montreal game is scheduled to come back 1:15 sooner, so Smith adds a minute of ads to that station’s commercial break. A technician cues up a scoreboard to show over 15 seconds of chatter from the studio team, covering the remaining time until the Toronto signal returns.

“And linking the magic of technology, we’re all one big happy family,” Stroumboulopoulos tells the audience as the feeds join up and turn back to the CBC studio to set up the Flames game.

“Every week at the end of the games has been different,” Spear says.

The hardest parts are now over, but the crew hands pizza around for sustenance. There are hours of broadcasting still to go – another game, two more intermissions, and a half-hour post-game show starting at 1 a.m., when the on-air team tends to be tired and loose after 15 hours at work.

“They’re funnier, man,” Stroumboulopoulos says of those late-night segments. “They’re wild.”