Why is hockey analysis always so lame? Part 2: The Broadcasters

Posted on May 7, 2010

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I don’t remember a world without instant replay; although I was born into such a world. After clever but misbegotten attempts to use instant replay from the mid-1950s on, it is generally conceded that the first “modern” use — and not yet slow-motion — was in the broadcast of the Army-Navy football game in December 1963. By the time I starting watching hockey in the late 60s, “slo-mo” was a standard part of the broadcast. In fact, I vaguely remember them hyping it a bit like a novelty; the way they do now with these “360” views of stop-and-start replays.

In any case, the introduction of instant replay is about the last time anything significant happened in the way hockey is broadcast in Canada or the US. For the most part, little has changed since the earliest crude TV broadcasts in the 1950s. (We got to see some of these during the lockout that shut down the 1994-5 NHL season, when Hockey Night in Canada decided to show some famous classic games. They were alarmingly similar to current broadcasts.) Hockey games are still largely shot from those cameras fairly high and from the side; and the “play-by-play” style has hardly evolved since the days of radio. Most of the time is still spent naming the player with the puck and dropping verbs to explain what he does with the puck. In other words, it simply describes what you’re seeing. And when its done entertainingly — and don’t get me wrong, many of these guys are artists at what they do — the announcer’s voice conveys the emotional stakes of the game at that moment.

So what? Is it possible that broadcasters simply hit on the ideal format early, and decided not to fix what ain’t broken?

No. It’s very broken. And the reason is simple: it tells the serious viewer almost nothing about how hockey works, about what’s going on in the minds of the players and coaches. And here I’m thinking not just of the live broadcast, but also, by-and-large, the analysis given by studio experts in intermissions and in pre- and post-game shows. (I don’t get the NHL Network, so it is possible there is some brilliant show on there. Please point me to it if that’s the case.) The contrast I have in mind in the level of analysis and explanation of NFL games available before, during, and after the games, and especially on regular shows like the brilliant NFL Matchup on ESPN. NFL coverage isn’t perfect, of course. It appeals to a wide variety of viewers, not just to nerds who want to know everything that is going on in the minds of the players and coaches. For one thing, NFL coverages in the hi-def, wide-screen era still makes too little use of camera angles that look downfield (which are especially informative for kick-offs, but also for almost any play from scrimage).

Before suggesting how hockey broadcasting might learn from football broadcasting, here is a quick summary of the formula they use in hockey:

  • Shoot 98% of the game from cameras mounted about 60 rows up on the side of the rink. Cut occasionally and quickly to a mobile camera by the glass to show collisions against the boards.
  • Tease the viewers with the occasional use of a camera mounted above and behind the net during the power play. I say “tease” because this is so obviously the best way to view a power play when the puck is in the end of the short-handed team. I’m not sure Hockey Night in Canada ever uses this view; NBC seems to use it more than Vs, which as I say teases us with it in an inconsistent way. (In fairness, this behind-the-net camera is the only real innovation — Fox’s short-lived glowing comet-like puck contrail notwithstanding — since the introduction of replays and color TV in the 1960s.)
  • Keep the camera focused closely on the puck. Try never to show more than about one-third of the ice surface, even if several of the players are off camera. (After all, what possible relevance can there be to players who are 50 feet away from the puck?) If a defenseman takes the puck behind his own net and is being allowed to bring it out by the other team, focus very closely on him and not on any of the players who are trying to get free for a pass. If there’s an odd-man rush, focus on those players and ignore the next wave who are coming in to handle a rebound.
  • Limit the use of instant replay to goals, scoring opportunities that involve a shot toward goal, and penalties or possible penalties.
  • When calling the game, the play-by-play man should mention the name of every player who touches the puck with verbs explaining what he does with the puck; describe occasionally the “mood” or tempo of the game; but never say anything that the viewer isn’t already seeing.
  • Use only commentators who are former players — preferably former goalies. When the commentator is analyzing a replay, he too should try to limit himself to explanations that the viewer can already see; but he is allowed to add that every time that a certain visible mistake is made, a goal is likely to result.
  • The final directive is harder to describe. It is something like this: limit your vocabulary of technical terms for strategic team-play. Focus instead on the skills and effort of individuals with the puck or making the save. You can mention that teams are short-handed or on the power play, you can speculate about when they might pull the goalie for an extra attacker, but that’s about it. When you talk about team-play, it is best to rely on “character” terms, as if the teams were individuals. You can talk about them being aggressive, passive, sloppy, on fire, disorganized, but nothing more sophisticated than that. By and large, apart from simple descriptions of an individual’s actions (the kind of shot he took, who he passed to, how he blocked a shot), explain his successes or failings in terms of his emotional engagement.

The net effect of this way of calling a game (and also of analyzing it in these same terms during the intermissions, etc.) is that hockey looks like a booming, buzzing confusion (to paraphrase William James). An exciting confusion, for sure. But mostly just a lot of moving and reacting and seizing on opportunities. It looks more like roulette than poker.We are almost never made aware of the existence of designed plays and formation. This is especially true of defensive formations and strategies, which are almost always chalked up to heart, tenacity, courage, intimidation, mental laziness, etc. During the 1990s, when officials had stopped calling obstruction penalties against players without the puck, a dominant defensive strategy called the “neutral-zone trap” emerged. Viewers would hear about this occasionally from commentators and analysts. But because it was off the puck, it necessarily happened off-camera, so we never really saw it. Since the rule changes in 2005 it has become impossible to run the trap the same way (because it relies on obstructing in way that will draw a penalty), and we are left with the impression that there is no real defensive strategy in its place. Just a lot of guys playing with heart, keeping their skates moving, and such.

If you learn your hockey from watching a lot of it on TV, you could be led to believe there are virtually no designed plays or formations, in part because you hear nothing like the rich vocabulary describing these things the way there is in other team sports, even curling (that is, there is almost no other formation vocabulary to go with “the trap”). Now granted, it is harder for the untrained eye to recognize formations and designed plays in sports as fluid as hockey or soccer, or even basketball — which is why we have analysts in the booth! But even in the most obvious set-play situation — the face-off — we have no vocabulary to describe the options being considered by both the offense and defense. Once or twice a game, typically if there’s an offensive-zone face-off for a team that is trailing late in a game or period, we might hear some speculation about where the offensive centerman will try to direct the puck. But the other 30 face-offs in the game are treated as if there was nothing going beyond two guys swiping at a bouncing puck and 8 other guys hoping they are lucky enough to be in the right place if it squirts toward them. Commentators never try to direct our attention to the what the wingers and defenders are doing offensively, defensively, or as decoys. The only thing we are likely to hear about is the center’s winning percentage; we don’t even get any explanation of his individual techniques, as if it were just a matter of reflexes, luck, and determination.

So how should hockey be broadcast? Some of my guesses should be obvious by now: roughly, they should do the opposite of what they do now. But I’ll try to get more specific in “Part 3,” and invite suggestions.

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