How the NHL's revamped broadcast impacted the viewer experience

·Writer
The NHL resumed exhibition games on Tuesday. (Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
The NHL resumed exhibition games on Tuesday. (Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

We now resume our irregularly scheduled programming.

After a four-month wait, the NHL returned on Tuesday in a series of pre-playoff games. Watching hockey during a pandemic is a novel viewing experience to be sure, and here are some takeaways from Tuesday’s broadcasts.

Sportsnet doesn’t make games readily accessible

Did you happen to catch Tuesday’s slate of games? If you didn’t, you may not be alone. Broadcasts of the Penguins-Flyers game weren’t readily available on television in Canada, causing some viewers to wonder why they planned their afternoon around hockey’s return.

In fairness to Sportsnet, Canadian teams are a better draw — this marks my requisite “This Is About the Leafs” reference for this article — and networks are often put in a tough position about which games to prioritize. Still, you’d have to think live sports would take precedent over re-runs of old games. It’s preseason for the players, but also for media, this writer included.

Wide angles might be here to stay

If you were lucky enough to catch the exciting game between Pittsburgh and Philly, you almost certainly noticed the number of wide shots throughout the broadcast. The wide angles provided a look at the whole ice surface at times, and often provided a more active viewing experience than what we’re used to.

Fan noise makes little impact on broadcast

Getting used to hockey without fans may be easier than expected. Following the lead of the Bundesliga, English Premier League, NBA and MLB, the NHL opted to pipe in artificial fan noise to replicate the experience of an actual crowd, aided by EA Sports. While it’s a nice idea in theory, it did little to affect the broadcast experience, nor did it falsely convince fans that everything was back to normal.

The NHL elected to run a world feed with a five-second delay with the ostensible goal of limiting any number of profanities from players caught on the broadcast, and it’s hard to tell at this stage whether that decision made a discernible difference as a viewer.

Crowd noise has been somewhat controversial to begin with in other sports. Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers told reporters he didn’t know who the piped-in fan noise was for, while players in the Bundesliga and English Premier League have largely ignored the artificial cheers after goals as it fails to replicate the live dynamic of a passionate crowd.

It’s a nice touch to get EA Sports involved but in the absence of fans, we could do without the fan noise, too.

Chris Cuthbert shines in Sportsnet debut

In the interest of full disclosure, Chris Cuthbert is not only Sportsnet’s newest, prized analyst but he’s also a Yahoo Sports Canada staff dad. He gets top marks for raising our beloved NHL reporter Justin Cuthbert, but we’re here to review his on-air performance.

Cuthbert called Tuesday’s Oilers-Flames game and earned consensus positive reviews from fans of both teams. The elder Cuthbert is known for his warm prose which often serves as a companion piece — count him among the broadcasters that positively affect my viewing experience — and Tuesday’s game was no different.

After joining Sportsnet from TSN midseason, Cuthbert and Louie DeBrusk may quickly stand out as Sportsnet’s No. 1 team. It’s too early to make snap decisions about what we’ve seen on the ice, but this was a major win for Cuthbert and Sportsnet on Tuesday. This sample below is just a glimpse of what we can expect this summer.

Leafs fans take umbrage with Jim Hughson

This isn’t meant as an attack on Sportsnet or their respective media personalities, but one of the most comical rivalries in hockey also resumed Tuesday: Leafs Fans vs. Jim Hughson.

Hughson, in my estimation, has done a fine job as a lead play-by-play announcer on Hockey Night in Canada since 2008 although in truth, unless you’re Bob Cole, beloved Sabres announcer Rick Jeanneret or NESN’s unabashed Bruins homer Jack Edwards, the broadcast often feels like white noise, for me anyways. There is a notion among Leafs fans that Hughson doesn’t care for the team at all and a number of fans once again criticized him for what they perceived to be a lack of fairness, along with inattentiveness during the Maple Leafs-Canadiens game.

It’s nearly impossible to prove bias on Hughson’s part, and again, I think he’s done a fine job. But in the centre of the hockey universe, even in a 4-2 victory, something is always awry on Leafs Twitter. Tuesday wasn’t Hughson’s night and perhaps fans will be more forgiving of the cardinal sin of bringing a palpable lack of vocal excitement for the Buds.

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