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3 NHL Broadcasters Reflect On League’s Sudden Pause

“The landscape of professional sports, as it has been for the last two years, is unprecedented and always subject to change.”

Derek Futterman

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After a stable first quarter of the season in terms of cases of COVID-19, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant and subsequent proliferation in total cases coerced the National Hockey League to start its holiday break early, pausing the season on December 22. Following the announcement, the NHL and NHLPA also revealed that they would not be sending players to the 2022 Beijing Olympics out of an abundance of caution and the protection of competitive integrity within the 2021-22 NHL regular season. While this pause only lasted six days, it was a stark reminder of the looming threat the pandemic has played in everyday life, and the uncertainty surrounding the remainder of the NHL season.

The landscape of professional sports, as it has been for the last two years, is unprecedented and always subject to change. The NHL has sought to bring some level of stability to its players, staff and personnel by modifying its protocols as the world learns more about COVID-19 every day. With the NHL on the precipice of 100% vaccination (all but one player), infected players, staff and personnel have largely shown mild symptoms, if any at all. Yet the league continues to take protocols to ensure the health and safety of all parties involved, including its broadcast teams.

Over the last two years, the terms “health and safety protocols,” “taxi squad” and “quarantine” have become an integral part of the vernacular in the sports world, and are undeniably part of the reason the NHL has been able to play most of its scheduled games amidst a pandemic.

For broadcasters, having to take precautions and adjust the way they call games has changed the way sports media is being viewed in today’s world. At this time, broadcasters can be taken off-the-air at a moment’s notice because of a positive or inconclusive COVID-19 test; a broadcast crew has the ability to call games remotely from studios or their own homes to avoid travel; and media availability has been and may continue to be exclusive to video conferencing platforms.

I recently spoke with three NHL play-by-play broadcasters, and gathered their thoughts on the season thus far, and what they anticipate going forward as the world seeks to mitigate a raging wildfire of the pathogenic coronavirus and its variants.

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Prior to the NHL taking a pause of its season, there were many clustered COVID-19 outbreaks among teams fueled by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. What was it like as a broadcaster to prepare for games you were not entirely sure were going to happen?

Chris King (Broadcaster, New York Islanders): I’m very used to that in my baseball broadcast career because games often get rained out. I had not experienced that in hockey ever until this pandemic began.

From a personal broadcasting standpoint, it’s incredibly frustrating because I could do 10 hours of prep-work on a game and find out the day before it’s not happening, and I’d say 80% of that you have to throw away. [It’s] just frustrating personally.

Chris King a 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' man with call of Isles' clincher | Newsday
Courtesy: Newsday

On the baseball side of it, you can check the weather forecast and get an idea that something like that may happen. With something like this, it came out of the blue. I would use the word frustrating just because of all the preparation.”

Mike Maniscalco (Broadcaster, Carolina Hurricanes): Nothing changed for me, honestly, because you have to go about it with the same preparation that there’s going to be a game. You know that there’s a chance that players you did some research on, or information that you’re looking up will be useless if a player tests positive or you find out that somebody’s not going to be in the game or they’re going to call somebody up a few hours before. But honestly, nothing really changed for me as far as preparation for those games that – will they or won’t they be played.

Dan D’Uva (Broadcaster, Vegas Golden Knights): We prepare for games that are on the schedule; I’m always preparing. The fact that there was one game before Christmas that was postponed in the case of the Golden Knights against Colorado. I know the Avalanche pretty well, so there was the diligence for each game putting together scorecards and lineup sheets. I watch and read about a lot of hockey, and watch the Avs quite a bit. Preparation for me is very much about the aggregate over time. I would have been ready had there been a game against Colorado on that Thursday before Christmas.

Was it the right decision to pause the season? How did the pause affect you and your work?

Chris King: I think it was. When it got to the point right around the Christmas break, what they eventually did is add one day on the front side of Christmas and two on the backside. At that point, you’re trying to get everybody healthy and off the COVID list. The separation of players from each other is probably the best thing for it. The league-wide pause put everyone on a level playing field. Up until Dec. 1, the only cancellations were [games of] the Senators and the Islanders.

Once we got into December, you really started to see these monster numbers where teams had double-digit numbers on the list. I like the fact that they added a little bit to the Christmas break to shut it down with the hopes to get people back. Obviously, it hasn’t worked out entirely as planned.

Mike Maniscalco: [It was] the right decision. Especially with the holidays and the travel schedule, there were people who were in Canada [and it] would have been difficult to get them across the border and home for the holidays.

I have no issue with the league hitting the pause button in the way that they did, especially in those situations because we were in Canada before that, and trust me that was one of the things we were talking about. I got to be home and spend Christmas with my wife, so we had a very quiet Christmas and nothing really out-of-the-ordinary for me [except] that it gave me more time to catch up on reading.

Dan D’Uva: I don’t have an answer for that because it’s a different case for every team. The Golden Knights would have very much been suited to play that game against Colorado, and the game that was postponed against L.A. after the break. They did not have such a high COVID rate where they couldn’t have played the game.

The reason for a lot of the postponements, especially now, has to do with not just COVID problems, but attendance problems. In Canada, they have had so many games that have been postponed because the teams can’t take the financial hit playing the games without fans. Given the number of restrictions in Canada, they just can’t stomach that financial burden because they had to swallow that last year. It was not as though they had a decision like March 2020; this has been more of a case-by-case thing.

What differences were there between the NHL’s pauses in 2020, 2021 and 2022?

Chris King: There’s 2020, which [became] the bubble playoffs. There’s last year, where no fans were in the arenas and then [it transitioned] back to normal in the second half. I would just say the biggest difference in the last two years was obviously last season had no fans in the building at all and built to near capacity, and they got through a truncated season of 56 games. Now we’ve had those long breaks; it’s certainly very different than anything we’ve experienced in the seasons before. Once we got fans back in the building, it felt like normal.

Now you’re looking at an Islanders team playing two games in 24 nights. That’s a ten-day break at the holidays, and an eleven-day break out of their New Year’s win against Edmonton. When they come out of the break, they are playing four times in six nights. It is very different from a year ago. Once it did get started, it went all the way through without these major disruptions, whereas this year, every team has dealt with some kind of disruption.”

Mike Maniscalco: The big thing for me is we didn’t come out of this going “We’ve got to go into a bubble.” Also, we had an abridged season last year where you were only playing seven teams because they broke up the NHL by the divisions, and then of course Canada was its own separate entity.

[This year], we know [the Canes] are going to still see other teams. You’re going to try to keep it as close to normal [as you can] with what’s going on. I don’t think that we’re going into something that we haven’t seen before. If the NHL does need to say there has to be a bubble or put a limit on fans, it’s something that we’ve seen before… At least we have an idea of what it will look like if there are changes that need to be made, whereas the first two lockdowns and pause, we had no idea what was coming next. At least there’s a bit of an idea of what things can look like to move forward depending on how the situation grows.

Canes Corner Roundup: Mike Maniscalco Returns; Canes To Start Season with  Four Alternate Captains - Canes Country

Dan D’Uva: I would not characterize what just happened as a pause. There’s always a break for Christmas. Were they a couple of additional games postponed? Yes. There were other games postponed as well.

What happened in March 2020 [was under] extraordinarily different circumstances. At that time, we, meaning the public, had no idea this was going to turn into a months-long delay. It was thought to be a matter of days or weeks, and then we would return. We had no idea it would turn into the pandemic it became and didn’t know how to handle that as a society.

Now, it’s totally different. We have vaccines; we have booster shots; we have a lot of ways to combat the medical challenges, and the reality is that the NHL has been through this before; [it knows] how to reschedule games given what happened last year.

It seems to be an entirely different circumstance and trying to shut things down because of the unknown, they are shutting things down on a case-by-case basis given the obstacles of either individual teams without enough healthy bodies, the risk of an outbreak, or, in Canada, the financial burden.”

What are some of the precautions you and your broadcast team have taken to ensure you stay healthy and safe?

Chris King: UBS Arena has done a great job. It requires that you’re vaccinated. If you get a chance to come up in the press box, everybody wears their mask — even when we are in our radio booth. That mask stays on pretty much until a minute before [we go on-the-air]. Obviously, you choose not to wear it while you’re broadcasting because it would not sound the same. We have separation between each of us in our brand new booth in the building. I see everybody in the press box completely masked up.

Mike Maniscalco: We’ve got to mask up at all times except for being on the broadcast [and] keep as much social distancing between us and the crew that we work with. Basically all of the protocols that we put in place last year, minus the plexiglass between me and Trip Tracy – the analyst who I work with – because Trip and I have been vaccinated; I’ve been boosted. At least we have that going into this year and knowing that’s where we’re at.

Basically, the same protocols are in place for what we had last year, especially now that things have really escalated with what’s going on with Omicron going around there. It’s still keep your distance, straight-line to the press box, straight-line to my car to get back home, and that’s about it.

Dan D’Uva: The precautions are — first of all, being vaccinated and receiving booster shots. The others would be — wearing masks when inside arenas as much as any other person in society would do. That has been part of the routine for those of us in the NHL’s traveling party.

For myself included, when you are traveling with the team there are protocols you adhere to, and it has been, for the most part, reasonable and in-line with the guidance you might receive from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the Canadian government. For me, the most important thing was to be vaccinated and to receive a booster shot; that was the obvious, most significant thing. Aside from our professional needs and duties, the most important thing is to be healthy as a person — forget about it as a career. God forbid someone should have a serious illness — you would hope that the vaccines and the booster would minimize the health effects of the virus.

Do you believe the NHL will be able to complete its season as scheduled, or do you foresee there being additional delays and/or postponements?

Chris King: I know they’re going to do their best to make up most of these postponements during the Olympic break. For the Islanders, it’s 11 postponements with only two rescheduled [thus far]. I’m sure [NHL Deputy Commissioner] Bill Daly has said they are going to try to get a majority of those games in February, but right now, you’re looking at the end of April as the last scheduled game.

I think they might end up using a couple of days at the start of May just to finish off anything that hasn’t been able to be shoehorned into the schedule. If they have to play a week or two into May, it pushes it out to a week or two to the very end.

Mike Maniscalco: I think that with the way that February has opened up with the NHL and the players not going to Beijing, we will get everything in. They will find a way to get everything in.

Dan D’Uva: I can see that games will be postponed, but I do not foresee a delay in the season itself or the conclusion of the season. That three-week period in February provides a nice buffer for these games to be rescheduled. At some point, the need to get games in will supersede the need to play games in front of fans.

Golden Knights radio voice Dan D'Uva gets the call-up | Las Vegas  Review-Journal
Courtesy: Las Vegas Review-Journal

Right now, they have a buffer, and they have become very good at rescheduling games given the last couple years. My hope would be that any additional postponements would not affect the conclusion of the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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