Behind the scenes with the Jackets TV crew
APR 18, 2013 11:16a ET
Ed Milliken, a Canadian who earned his stripes as a producer with “Hockey Night in Canada,” has been watching the Columbus Blue Jackets for six years through 20 screens with over eight voices in his head throughout an 82 game season—and this abbreviated one.
“I love hockey and played hockey,” said Milliken, explaining it was a seized opportunity starting as a bottom-feeder getting coffee and towels for hockey players at HNC that put him where he is today. “I got the love of the game and learned the television from the street level. And I love it and I love being in Columbus.”
As the producer of the CBJ’s live TV broadcast on Fox Sports Ohio, Milliken has watched this team struggle for years as he directed his 20+ member staff on where to point the camera lens, when to talk sponsors and which clip to replay during a break. To see the club continue its push for a second playoff berth after a commanding 3-2 OT win over the Anaheim Ducks Wednesday night is something he and his staff cherishes behind-the-scenes—it’s what broadcasting teams dream of.
“The passion for the game gets connected with the passion of the team doing well and connecting with the viewers,” said Milliken, who played hockey as a teenager with a score of fellows who went on to careers in the NHL, like Brian Stapleton of the Washington Capitals. “We go into every game hoping they’re going to win, but what we really want is that it’s entertaining. This is sports on television. We want it to be compelling viewing so people have a reason to stay and watch.”
Certainly the Blue Jackets game action has provided enough drama for all the international viewers that have tuned in. From Columbus to Sweden to Canada—the club’s underdog story on the ice is writing itself for viewers everywhere.
“With the center ice packages, people watch us all over,” said Milliken. “When we broadcast now, everybody sees us.”
To meet the needs of such a broad audience, said Milliken, takes a big team and a lot of time. Behind-the-scenes of a simple 30-minute Blue Jackets Live pre- or post-game show—or the 3-hour live broadcast—is a talented group of 20+ producers, audio folks, graphics specialists, cameramen and on-air personalities weaving together a story line that depicts the depth of the human heart and spirit out of a matrix of stats and numbers.
“People forget stats. They remember the stories,” said Milliken. “What I tell everybody is ‘Let the game come to you.’ You can’t force a story. If we’re playing Minnesota and we say this is going to be a rough game and it doesn’t happen, well now, what do you do? The key to what we do is the ability to react.”
In fact, behind the TV magic of storytelling is really the same grueling schedule as the club the Fox team covers.
“It’s not as glamorous as people think,” said Blue Jackets Live pre- and post-game producer Travis Williams, who got his start in TV news as a graphics guy at age 19. “Back when I traveled with the team, it would be ‘Oh, you get to see all these great places.’ Well, no. I got in at 2:30 a.m. after a game, got up at 7, on the bus at 10 and there wasn’t a whole lot of off-time or glamour. You spend your time in a loading dock.”
And for every 30-minute pre- or post-game show you see, is about 14 hours of off-camera researching, attending practices, interviewing players and coaches on both home and opposing teams, and Fox team meetings to plan what will happen in those precious minutes.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” said Williams, also a recreational hockey player who’s been with Fox for nine years—four as a graphics guy and producing for the last five. “I try to write (the show) in a way that it’s a story arc. I’m trying to tell a story from the first part through the second part and draw as many connections as I can.”
But as much as they plan, the thrill of the job is that it’s live—and anything can happen.
“Even though we do hours of prep work for each show..it’s largely ad-lib,” said Blue Jackets Live host Dave Maetzold, particularly the post-game show. Maetzold co-hosts with Dan Kamal, an Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets broadcasting alum. “Not only are you reacting to what’s happening (within the game), but we have so-and-so as a walk-off, dressing room interviews…Travis will get in my ear and say we have a shot coming up of three players and when those shots come up, I have to think of something current and topical as they come up and I have about 20 seconds notice to do it.”
Getting used to reacting to the voices in their heads is a talent that is learned and eventually becomes second-nature during live broadcasts, said sideline reporter Natalie Taylor.
“I’m a traffic cop a lot of the time,” said Taylor, who worked for Fox Sports South covering the Atlanta Thrashers until they moved to Winnipeg. She then worked for ABC6/FOX28 before coming to Fox Sports Ohio and covering the Blue Jackets last year. “I’m taking counts, making sure we’re filling time, getting to the next commercial break, facilitating between the show open and getting up to the booth, my job is to fill that time.”
“If people think it looks easy, that means we’re doing our job,” said Taylor, who added that she can’t wait to get home and wash the make-up off her face after a broadcast. The bright lights and intense HD-TV make for minor skin blemish mishaps if not covered correctly. Though Maetzold said the compact he keeps in his suit pocket on-air is for the “glare” the bright lights can create.
Truth be told, live television is a rough and tumble game—and with it comes live mishaps that could throw a rookie completely off the mark. But for experienced talent, even a monkey with urinary incontinence can’t spoil the show.
“We had Jack Hannah on the air on the pre-game show and he had a monkey on the desk. And (the monkey) peed all over the desk. All over Ray Crawford’s notes,” laughed Williams. “Crawford’s just looking at the monkey like, ‘Hey. Those are my notes.’ We were laughing so hard we were in tears. There’s nothing we can to do to make it not happen.”
It happens. A host will say the wrong thing, a flubbed delivery, a missed graphic, a wrong replay—in those moments, a pen may “accidentally” fly across the broadcast truck, or a string of expletives worthy of “A Christmas Story,” may explode.
“It’s a colorful place,” laughed Williams. “If you get concerned about mistake A, B or C, it’ll snowball. So you really have to be in the moment. Move on. That’s all you can do.”
Well, that, and connect with Twitter fans who live-tweet the hosts during the shows.
“The other night I was talking about Sergei Bobrovsky (and I called his net) ‘throne.’ Someone on Twitter tweeted, ‘That’s his precinct,’” laughed Maetzold, who got a push into broadcasting from radio and TV personality Kato Kaelin—his roommate at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. “I came back on-air and corrected myself. That part of it is really fun.”
Connecting with viewers about a sport they love is what keeps this team of broadcasters going. And for Blue Jackets TV color analyst Bill Davidge, a former hockey coach and teacher at Miami University, it’s about teaching people a game that is his passion.
“I have to teach and break down--the how and the why,” said Davidge, who co-hosts with play-by-play announcer Jeff Rimer. Davidge also did some scouting for the Detroit Red Wings, as well as player development with the Florida Panthers. He’s had different roles within the Blue Jackets organization, but his most recent has been as a color analyst for the last four years.
Even with all that experience under his belt, Davidge said hockey is a game that requires constant learning—even for a veteran guy like him.
“I learn something new every day,” he said. “(The NHL) changes every day and you have to keep up with it.”
From the rule book to a coaching change, in the hockey world, everyone has a different way of saying the same thing. Davidge said he used to look in his “Hitch-ionary” to understand some of what former Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock used to say. And current head coach Todd Richards has his own phrases, too.
“He keeps things at a simple pace, but he’s also…you can tell; he’s very intense,” said Davidge of Richards. “He’s an intense competitor.”
But then again, so are the people who bring the Blue Jackets’ stories to the viewing audience, without wearing rose-colored glasses and carrying a passion for the team they love.
“I’m a positive guy and I’ve gone through death, divorce and taxes—I live by the sword that tomorrow is going to be better day and right now we’re living a dream,” said Davidge of being just one of the storytellers recording the CBJ’s unbelievable journey. “We waited a long time for it to happen; (the players and coaches) put in the hard work and they believe.”
So do we.
You can watch the Blue Jackets continue their playoff push tonight at 10:30 p.m. versus the L.A. Kings on Fox Sports Ohio.
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