A Game In The Life

So, in my attempts to come up with something to present to you all this fine sunny Friday, I pondered a discussion on Jerramie Domish’s injury and the “keep or release” debate going on on forums everywhere, before deciding that it’d be done to death everywhere else and besides we’re better off waiting for the weekend.

So instead, with the regular season starting, I thought I’d give people one of those periodic journeys behind the scenes of life as a British PBP guy. Here’s a typical gameday for me, from leaving for the rink to post-game drinks. It’s a routine that solidified last season but has had to be moved around thanks to Blaze changing their face-off time. But this is pretty much how a day will run. Come step inside the glamorous life of hockey PBP, British style.

Blaze games face off at 5:15 pm on a Sunday this season. After getting up around 10 or 11 (hey-everyone lies in on a Sunday) my game day preparation starts around 1pm. I’ll drag myself away from whatever Sunday movie/kids TV is on TV, fire up the Internet and read up the very latest on whoever Blaze’s opposition are that night-current statistics, histories, even little things like player home towns) and work out in my head who I’ll particularly be watching out for.
I use Eliteprospects.com for this, not least because it’s a) far easier to find statistics, jersey numbers and the like on it than anywhere else-which is particularly important early on in the season…
I might make a few notes in my head on particular things to keep an eye out for-for example my list of “keys to the game” will be different if Blaze are playing Sheffield to, say, Fife.
This is the point at which I’m beginning to plan what I’ll say that night. Usually, though, it’ll only be in the broadest possible strokes of “things I may want to mention”. PBP is a very reactive thing, so planning what you’re going to say about a team or a player in advance is pointless beyond the two or three minutes of intro you have. I’m also doing a last-minute bit of plugging on the Blaze TV twitter to make sure everyone knows about the webcast.

Around 3:15 I’ll leave for the half-hour walk to the Skydome. During this time I’m  thinking about pretty much anything to do with the game ahead, from running through opposition roster numbers in my head to trying to work out likely stars, possible key battles or possibly who the Blaze will run on which line.

3:45 is about the time I get to the rink. First job once I get in there is find Rob Coleman and get the key for the Blaze cupboard, since I have to set up the sponsor backdrop in the Blaze media room for the post-game interviews.

The media room sounds fancy but is actually a small, dimly lit room just off the Skydome entrance. The backdrop barely fits under the roof, and usually doesn’t go together cleanly (not because it’s broken, but because I’m a technological dumbass-the amount of times I’ve got the thing upside down already is ridiculous.) The next twenty minutes or so is occupied by setting up the chairs and camera for the post-game media conference.

What I do from now on depends on whether or not my partner Aaron Murphy is covering the game with me. As he works for ESPN, he can’t get to every Blaze game due to work commitments. He’s new this year, replacing Ed Kimberley, who is a good friend of mine and was my partner last season. Ed is moving away to another part of the UK shortly, so naturally we needed a new guy, and were VERY lucky indeed that Aaron came along.

Whether he’s there or not, I’ll nip up to the Skydome media gallery (which is really just a balcony behind the announcer’s table) and say hello to the team up there, all of whom I know well and several of whom are close personal friends. At this time Pete, the Blaze TV cameraman, will be setting up and testing his kit-it’s not the multi-camera fanciness of the NHL but one camera on a tripod, linked to a set of DVD players and a mixer which feed the picture down to the Internet server in the rink bar office. Jane, Pete’s wife, is down there making sure the feed is going out OK throughout the game.

It should be mentioned at this point that Jane and Pete are the ones who REALLY make the webcast happen-I yammer away on the microphone but it’s these two who do all the hard technical work and set up the kit.

By now the doors have opened and people are starting to come into the rink-and I’ve (hopefully, anyway) met up with Aaron, too and had a brief chat.  I’ll nip down and say hello to some friends, and then (usually) be back up in the box for warmup. During the warmup I’ll be watching the opposition team more than the Blaze, trying to get hints on line combinations, defensive pairings and looking for unique aspects about each player to aid identification of them during a game-it might be their skates or other equipment being different to everyone else’s, a particular haircut, or being the only left-shooting forward on a line of righties. Ed used to stand with me and we’d swap notes on the upcoming game, but Aaron and I have still to build a routine. It’ll likely be similar, though.

I’m also mentally rehearsing numbers and possible events during the game in my head, just so I don’t stumble during stock moments in play (although it does still happen)…at this point I’m also beginning to plan the first bit I’ll say on the air after “good evening”, so it comes out nice and clearly, and checking rosters so I know which players on both teams are missing that night.

As time ticks toward faceoff, I tend to get more and more hyped up. At the Blaze they have a routine where they play the same songs in the buildup each week-I can usually be found playing air guitar to “Hysteria” by Muse just as a way to calm myself down a bit…which has got a few odd looks in the past.

A few words with Pete on how he’s set up this week-if there are any tech issues like the replay button (a button which switches the broadcast to the feed on 12 second delay so we can get replays of goals etc) not working he’ll let me know at this point. We’ve already planned who’ll do the intro, so as the away team hits the ice, on go the headphones, up goes the mic sound fader on the mixer, and away we go.

Actually calling a game is something that comes fairly easily to me…I’m trying to watch the whole ice and all ten players rather than just the puck, although the biscuit of course has the majority of my attention, my eyes are flicking back and forth watching the other players, trying to anticipate the play. I’m also watching for penalty calls or, if I miss them, trying to listen to the announcements while continuing to talk. I don’t notice anyone around me so when someone wants to get by (and it’s busy up there-you get people coming in and out on the media gallery all game-no private booths for us) I usually need a gentle nudge in the back to get me to move. Calling a game solo is simple-you just have to know when to talk and when not to, and react to the events on ice, describing them in the best way you can.

Calling a game as a duo is a lot trickier as then you have two things to react to-the game and your partner. I try to either leave a long pause or actively mention the other guy to give them their talk-time to-something like “Puck goes into the corner, cleared away by Domish…he’s definitely been one of the Blaze stars tonight, Aaron”. However, when you’ve got a partnership going, that kind of thing happens naturally. You can see it happening on any commentary you listen to.

I’m also keeping an eye on Twitter and responding to any messages that come in from those watching-fan interaction is a big part of the appeal of Blaze TV, we’re told.

Period breaks are a chance to take a brief break from the concentration, but even then I’m still thinking about how I’ll introduce the next period, what the possible storylines are, and where the game could go.

At the end of the game, though, my work isn’t done. After finishing up and summarising, it’s then time to race down to the media room and work the camera for the post-game interviews, sometimes joined by fans who’ve purchased the “Ultimate Fan Package” which lets them behind the scenes. Stuart Coles does them, and does them well.

After that, it’s time to pack the backdrop down, tidy up the room, and put it away. Then to the bar for a quiet drink (by now it’s around 8:45pm, 45 minutes or so after the game has finished, normally) and home, ready to do it all again the next game.

It’s unpaid, it’s challenging, and it’s sometimes tiring (particularly when the game is slow or there’s little to comment on) but it’s just as much fun as I imagine calling an NHL game on a national TV network would be, just on a much, much smaller scale.

And it’s what I do at least once, (and often twice or three times since I also do PBP for the Blaze’s minor-league feeder team)  a week from September to April.

It’s well worth it.

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