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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If Howard Stern Really Doesn’t Know Who Al Dukes Is, He Should
A big part of Dukes’ success is the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, just like some broadcasting giants like Stern and David Letterman.
Al Dukes wasn’t quite sure why WFAN afternoon drive co-host Evan Roberts had sent him an email last week with audio from The Howard Stern Show on Sirius XM, but he was certainly all smiles when he took a listen.
In response to Carton and Roberts talking-up longtime Howard Stern producer Gary Dell’Abate for the Radio Hall of Fame the week before, the “King Of All Media” suggested last Monday that Dukes, the Executive Producer of the Boomer and Gio morning show on WFAN, should be in the Hall of Fame before Dell’Abate.
“It was a big thrill for me just because I loved Howard Stern in the late 80s up through 2010s and a little bit further,” said Dukes. “I’ve kind of lost touch with him lately but he was the reason I got into radio.”
Dukes also had a chuckle when Stern followed up the nomination by saying…
“I don’t know Mr. Dukes. Who is Al Dukes?”
“I know he has no idea who I am,” said Dukes. “He was listening to Carton and Roberts and was busting Gary’s balls. That was just cool to hear him say my name like that. It was very funny. It was just fun to hear on the radio.”
Even though it may only have been a joke, it certainly meant a lot to Dukes to hear Stern mention his name because of the impact that the broadcasting giant had on his life and career.
When Dukes was a student at Kean University in New Jersey from 1988 to 1992, he would always listen to Howard Stern during his commute to and from home. But when Dukes moved on to graduate school at Indiana State, there was a problem…Howard Stern was not on in that market. Since that was before being able to listen to radio shows online or before the advent of satellite radio, Dukes was not going to be able to listen.
That was until his mother Carole came up with an idea to send her son cassette tapes of the Howard Stern Show.
“My mother just started recording on a cassette deck when she would get ready to go to work,” said Dukes. “When he went to commercial, she would hit pause. She would do the same thing the next day and when she had a full tape, she would send it off.”
Dukes’ mom did this throughout his time in Indiana and continued to record the tapes when her son took his first radio job in Tampa in 1994.
She had to because Stern wasn’t on in that market either.
“It was a really neat bonding experience for me and my mom because she got to really like Howard Stern and she thought it was great,” said Dukes. “She would do self-editing and when they had strippers or porn stars, she would not record that and say oh that’s so boring.”
Even without the explicit material, those Stern tapes played a vital role as Dukes ascended to have the storied career he has enjoyed. From being a sports radio producer and reporter in Tampa to where he is now at WFAN, Dukes has had a very successful career.
Thanks, of course, in part from those Howard Stern tapes that his mom sent him.
“It definitely shaped who I was and who I am,” said Dukes. “I did all of my (graduate school) projects centered around something to do with talk radio and Howard Stern.”
Not lost on Dukes’ mind is the reason why Stern ultimately mentioned his name last week and that was Craig Carton and Evan Roberts talking about Dell’Abate during their WFAN show. So, the question had to be posed to Dukes…
Is “Bababooey” a hall of famer?
“Absolutely,” said Dukes. “The guy was with Howard Stern for all of these years, been fired on the air many times…he’s really had his life exposed. He’s evolved over the years to booking A-level guests and getting people to come in and that is not an easy thing to do. So, absolutely first-ballot hall of famer.”
For as much as Stern served as inspiration for him, Dukes also learned a lot about producing from Dell’Abate. Dukes appreciated to type of radio that Stern was doing and the fact that Dell’Abate had the ability to get on the air a lot. That was certainly something that resonated with Dukes as his career progressed.
“(Dell’Abate) didn’t have the responsibility of being the lead guy but did a lot of things behind the scenes,” said Dukes. “Then he was a great foil for Howard, Robin (Quivers) and Fred (Norris). I always looked at Gary early on and said I’m sure I can’t do what Howard does but I think I can do what Gary does.”
A big part of Dukes’ success is the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, just like some broadcasting giants like Stern and David Letterman. Dukes has always recognized that the hosts are the cool guys, but over time he has certainly let his unique personality come through during those moments when he gets some air time.
“I’ll be not the cool guy,” said Dukes. “I’ll be that foil because it works. It lets the hosts be this alpha male type guy and then you get to be the everyday guy.”
And Dukes, that everyday guy, has built up a resume full of hall of fame credentials.
Dukes has produced some iconic radio shows in his career including Ron and Fez at WNEW Radio in New York before taking on the Executive Producer role for Boomer and Carton on WFAN in 2007. He continued in that role when the show became Boomer and Gio and has also co-hosted The Warm Up Show and The Postgame Podcast with Jerry Recco.
Dukes has been blessed to be around some amazing radio talent during his career including Ron Bennington, Fez Whatley, Boomer Esiason, Craig Carton and Gregg Giannotti.
“I’ve been fortunate to be put in those positions,” said Dukes. “Judging a producer’s success is kind of judging a head coach or a manager. If you give them a terrible team all of sudden, they’re a terrible manager but if you give them a good team, they’re a good manager.”
Now, let’s circle back to Howard Stern’s assertion that Dukes should be in the Radio Hall of Fame…
Wouldn’t “Hall of Famer” Al Dukes would have a nice ring to it?
“Yeah,” said Dukes. “But to quote Mike (Francesa) and Chris (Russo), I’m a compiler at this point. You can’t be a one-man band in this business. You do have to be surrounded with the right people and right chemistry.”
And that group of “right people” includes his mother for sending him those Howard Stern tapes!
Radio Can’t Sit Back And Wait On Marijuana Money
“Attitudes on marijuana have changed tremendously in the last 15 years. It went from an illicit substance we had to ask around to score to something we put in candy.”
I had a great conversation last week with Mark Glynn of iHeartMedia Seattle. He was the focus of the latest column in our Meet the Market Managers partnership with Point-to-Point Marketing.
One of the subjects Mark and I discussed was advertising marijuana in markets like Seattle, where the drug can be purchased legally.
No broadcasting company is ready to take money for advertising legal weed yet. Despite state and local laws decriminalizing it in some places, a federal ban on marijuana still remains in place.
But Glynn knows there is money in it. iHeartMedia isn’t just sitting back and waiting for the green light.
“I know that the company itself is working with legislators to figure out how to make that work,” he told me. “It’s obviously a federal situation right now. The Washington State Broadcasters Association I know is very heavily involved with lobbying for that because it is an opportunity, just like gambling is in other states across the country.”
This got me thinking about a column I wrote late last year about the political force sports radio can be in states where sports gambling is not yet legal. The same can and should be true for marijuana.
Think of all of the categories we are allowed to advertise. Ever heard of passive investment firms? The entire business model is built on convincing customers to bet on people’s homes being foreclosed on. That is ghoulish and yet, there is nothing stopping those firms from buying time on air.
How about gambling? It is considerably more addictive. That is why so many states require any ads for sportsbooks to include information about a gambling helpline. Also, we have clients, in states where sports gambling is not legal, who take money from offshore books. No one says boo.
So why is weed different and what can we do about it?
Well, as Mark Glynn points out, the Washington State Association of Broadcasters is making sure lawmakers are aware of what is at stake financially for the broadcast industry. That is a very good start.
Second, hosts can be casual when discussing marijuana. Eliminating the stigma our older, more socially conservative listeners have around cannabis is really important. The last thing radio needs is a segment of its most dedicated listeners pushing back on this effort.
There is no reason to force marijuana into your programming, but when it comes up, you should be treating it as casually as you do alcohol. After all, it is well-documented how absurd it is that marijuana use was ever a crime.
Go look at the comment section on any ESPN social media post about Brittney Griner. You will see literally dozens of people insinuating that the WNBA star got what she deserved by bringing marijuana into Russia. That sort of reaction to Griner’s story, and ones like it, are the last things we need if we are trying to turn marijuana into the next hot advertising category.
Finally, I think it is important for individual stations to engage lawmakers. Local business leaders, particularly market managers and CEOs of locally-owned stations and clusters need to be out front on this effort. They are the job creators that politicians are always praising. Their voices are the ones that politicians need to hear saying that it is time to eliminate legal restrictions on advertising marijuana.
Invite them into the building. Give them tours. Talk to them about what is at stake.
The most important thing we can do is remind them that local broadcasting’s goal is to reflect and serve its community. If the community has no problem with the weed business, why should there be a problem with the broadcasters taking advertising money?
Attitudes toward marijuana have changed tremendously in the last 15 years. It went from an illicit substance we had to ask around to score to something we put in candy. That means who is using marijuana has changed too.
Listen to any sports talk station over the course of an hour and just count how many ads there are for various Viagra alternatives. The same guys getting those medications through online pharmacies are buying weed gummies for exhaustion and stress relief. Getting high isn’t the exclusive use for marijuana anymore.
Our industry could benefit so much from dispensaries being allowed to advertise. Many of those businesses have the money too and need to find ways to reinvest it. We have to be vocal and we have to make sure the right people hear us. The best way to create a new revenue stream is a united front telling the people in charge why it has to happen.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.