PTM Interview: Napoleon Dynamite Producer Mike Scully Talks ‘Lisa on Ice’, His Legendary Hockey Episode of The Simpsons

When it comes to hockey episodes of American television shows, there’s The Simpsons “Lisa on Ice”, and then there’s a load of gloriously terrible misfires. The show (which aired November 13, 1994), a satire of hockey violence, sports parents, and well… dozens of the other regular targets the show has skewered over 23 years, is damn near perfect in striking a balance between fall-down funny (seriously, why does Marge have Milhouse’s teeth?) to heart-warming (the scene at the end where Bart and Lisa give up their hockey rivalry), it’s everything that makes the greatest episodes of the show, well… so great.

So on Thursday it was my pleasure to talk to the writer of the episode, Mike Scully. Mr. Scully still works part-time on the show, and ran the series as an Executive Producer for seasons 8-12. He now currently writes for both The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation, both of which are covered in this interview, but is also spear-heading a cartoon adaptation of the 2004 cult classic Napoleon Dynamite, which premieres Sunday, January 15th with two episodes at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. ET on FOX. Mr. Scully was nice enough to give me some time out of his busy schedule, and in that time we not only covered Lisa’s aptitude for hockey, but how the show comes up with references in the internet age, Springfield vs. Pawnee, and why a Napoleon Dynamite cartoon might just be a brilliant idea.

Steve Lepore: Growing up, what was your hockey background?

Mike Scully: I grew up in West Springfield, Massachusetts as a fan of an AHL team called the Springfield Kings, who were a farm team for the LA Kings at the time. I was a rink rat who used to get chased around by Eddie Shore [laughs], who was a legendary maniac. Me and my friends would hang out and watch the team practice, and the players would try to give us free sticks and pucks. Then Eddie Shore would come running down screaming, making us give everything back, then chasing us out of the arena [laughs].

SL: Going back to the one thing I wanted to talk to you about from The Simpsons is of course, “Lisa on Ice”, which is still one of my favorites ever. Was the idea behind it simple, like “let’s do a hockey show”or was there anything else behind that.

MS: Well, basically, I got there at the beginning of Season 5, and I was the only hockey fan on staff, and they had already done a baseball show, possibly two, and I think they’d done a football show. You’re always looking for story ideas, so I had pitched the hockey thing as a funny conflict between Bart and Lisa, and we justified Lisa having these catlike reflexes from always having to defend herself from Bart, and it just kind of went off and running from there. We got a couple of great, classic sequences out of it with Homer enjoying pitting the two kids against each other and him flicking the light on and off [laughs].

SL: One of the things the episode deals with is, to be honest, bad parents and bad sports parents. When you were growing up, had you dealt with parents like that in your own experiences?

MS: Yeah. Not in my own parents, but you would see one or two parents every game. By and large, most of the parents were real supportive, but there were always one or two who would take it a little too seriously, and maybe be fueled by a couple of beers. Just kind of forget what the point was of the game. There have also been kids’ sporting events with occasional fights in the stands.

SL: Obviously you go and write the first draft of the script, and then it goes to the room and gets re-written. Were there any hockey jokes pitched by other writers that weren’t big hockey fans that you felt sketchy about, sort of like if you had pitched a joke about math or physics that might not sit well with writers whose interests were in those subjects?

MS: They didn’t want it to be too inside hockey. Being, unfortunately, the least popular of the major sports, they wanted to make sure the show was very relatable to the audience, but we put a few in. In my first draft, I think I had included a guest star part for Wayne Gretzky, which unfortunately during the rewrite process somehow managed to get cut. Which I was upset about. I would have loved to have stacked the deck with, like, Gretzky and Bobby Orr and Esposito and my lesser-known favorites that were heroes of mine growing up.

SL: That’s too bad. The episode was probably – looking back at the airdate – it was not long before FOX tried to turn hockey into a cartoon.

MS: Exactly. A couple years later they would have totally been on board on doing that and really loading it up with guest stars, but it just didn’t work that way. But it was a fun episode to do. I think it might’ve been my second script that I wrote for the show. It was a lot of fun to do. And, hard for me to believe that was like, 18 years ago [laughs].

SL: I know there’s been a couple of other references to the sport, but did you ever attempt to do another hockey episode?

MS: No. Actually, never tried to do another one. I think we felt like we’d already done it.

SL: On to a more general question about the show. Pop culture has become really fractured in the age of the internet. Has this made it harder for the writers to do the more reference-heavy [episodes] of the shows earlier years?

MS: No, not at all. We have not changed the way that we write the show for internet or YouTube, we write the shows exactly the same way.

SL: You’re a Kings season ticket holder, right?

MS: Actually, not this year because my work schedule got so crazy that I wasn’t going to be able to make a lot of games. But a lot of times I’ll realize I can go to the games that day. Like, at 6 o’clock, I finally realize I can leave the office, and I do a lot of day-of-game ticket purchasing. I was a season ticket holder for 10 years.

SL: You picked kind of the wrong 10 years to be a season ticket holder now that it’s getting better.

MS: Oh, tell me about it [laughs].

SL: In general, have you noticed it getting better in terms of attendance over the past few years?

MS: Yes, definitely. There’s some very rabid hockey fans in LA, and very knowledgeable, too. I think a lot of them are east coast transplants, who still love the game. There’s some people who just come out only when their team is in town, like the Red Wings. It’ll seem like half the arena is filled with people in Red Wing jerseys. But yeah, LA’s got a pretty solid hockey fanbase. Considering the way things were for many years when the team was not performing well, there’s some genuine hope for the future there and some excitement. We hang in there!

SL: You currently work part-time on Parks & Rec. Do you think there are similarities between the shows, in that they both have these vast universes in Springfield and Pawnee and these large amounts of semi-regulars you can just call on for a joke?

MS: Yeah, it didn’t really happen intentionally. We kind of stumbled into adding these small part characters and these kind of odd-ball people. When it would work out, we’d just want to be able to see them again and use them in other episodes, and the more you do that, the more you expand the universe of the show. Suddenly, we realized that this is getting kind of like Springfield. Where we have the local newscaster, or a cop, or the guy in the sewage department. We started bringing people back a couple times a year, like the crazy citizens at the town meetings, certain ones we try to use: there’s one we just call Angry Red-Faced Man. We use the same actors. It kind of happened by accident.

Then the rivalry with the town of Eagleton wasn’t designed to resemble Springfield/Shelbyville, but in hindsight, we realized that was kind of what we had done. It worked out great, since then we’ve kind of embraced the Simpsons comparison. We actually had Dan Castellanetta (voice of Homer) on the show this year playing the host of an NPR show. It’s kind of fun, we kind of enjoy the comparison. If you’re going to be compared to something, why not The Simpsons?

SL: Is Parks & Rec also similar to The Simpsons in that the town itself is also a character on the show?

MS: Oh yes, absolutely. As the show has evolved and grown, Pawnee has become a character. There’s a book out right now that’s really funny, it was put together by [Parks & Rec Executive Producer] Mike Schur and some of the other writers, with tons of trivia and history about Pawnee, it’s a really funny read.

SL: Finally, onto Napoleon Dynamite. It’s been a few years that movie took the world by storm out of nowhere. While I’m sure you’ve gotten this question before, why adapt the show for television now?

MS: About two and a half years ago, I had a meeting with Jared Hess, who wrote and directed the film. He had decided he wasn’t going to do any sequels to the film. The studio had been asking him for quite a while. When a movie hits like that, the very first thing they want you to do is crank out, you know, ‘Napoleon 2‘, ‘Napoleon 3‘, ‘Napoleon 3D‘. He just felt like he had nothing fresh to add to what he did the first time. What was unique and special about the first movie, you can’t really repeat it, because the audience will come in knowing what to expect, and that’d take the fun out of it.

He’d been toying with the idea of doing it as a live action series, and then kind of stumbled on the idea of animation because he always felt there was this kind of rich world inside of Napoleon’s head that they didn’t get to explore in the film. Things you can do in animation that you can’t do in live action. He decided he wanted to go that way, and we met and we hit it off, and we started going about making it an animated show as a transition from the film. We’re real happy with the way it’s come out.

SL: We’ve seen a few more animated series premiere recently, and it takes a while to get a consistent comic tone correctly on these shows. With the film as a backdrop, was it easier to come up with the right tone of the comedy on the show?

MS: Well, it certainly helped that we had these very distinct, unusual characters already in place and we knew where they lived and what type of town it was. We had the original cast’s voices as well, so we knew what they sounded like. Then we had to figure out how to, for animation purposes, change it. The pace of the film and the style of the film would not translate well to animation. We knew we had to kind of pick up the pace, have more visual things going on, really kind of blow up the world of Preston, Idaho to show all the things you couldn’t show in the movie, to kind of go bigger with some of the stories.

For instance, there’s an episode where Napoleon gets a job working at a liger-breeding facility, which is a real thing that there actually is one in Idaho. So you actually get to see ligers, and he accidentally causes a liger invasion of Preston. It would be hard to do in animation. Not a lot of working ligers in town [laughs].

SL: I’ve heard it sounds like more of a King of the Hill style in that regard, than say Simpsons or South Park.

MS: In some respects, yes. Definitely an element of King of the Hill with the pace of The Simpsons.

SL: You obviously have the people from the original movie on board, do you look at the show being set as in a different universe from the movie?

MS: It’s definitely set in the world of the movie. The characters look like themselves, and the house is the same, and the school, we tried to recreate that world. Basically, the landscape of Idaho is all similar. Storywise, it allows us to establish more places in town – restaurants, police station – things you’d find around town that weren’t in the film. It’s very true to the tone and spirit of the film, while having the pace and feel of an animated show. I think it’s going to fit really well between The Simpsons and Family Guy.

One of the fun things about the film, I remember the first time I saw it with my kids. I came out and we were all laughing and quoting lines. You walked out of there and you immediately had a half-dozen catchphrases after seeing it once. You also had no real sense of when the movie took place. You felt like, is this happening now or is this set in the 1980’s?

SL: I thought that too. I originally thought the early/mid-90’s, then there’s that performance of the Backstreet Boys song at the end that I knew was from at least this century. It’s kind of timeless in a way.

MS: Yeah, and there’s like, a Cyndi Lauper song in it. So I thought that was kind of fun, and were trying to do that in the series. It won’t be kids running around with cell phones, texting. Kip still works on his big old desktop computer and they have a dial-up modem. We want to kind of keep that timeless, small-town feel to it.

We used to introduce technology very grudgingly on [The Simpsons]. Then, we’d introduce something in one episode and then it’d be gone again [laughs]. Even now, we still are aware of whether somebody’s on a cell phone on the show, but we prefer not to, if we can figure out a way not to. We don’t want Bart and Lisa sitting there texting, it’s boring to watch and we’d rather hear them talk. Unless we do an episode where Lisa gets hooked on texting, which I’m sure we will do at some point.

That’s the thing we’re trying to do with Napoleon as well. We’re really trying to stay away from pop culture references that sometimes can quickly date your show. When you see something repeated three or four years from now, and half the people you’re talking about are dead [laughs].

PTM Interview: Mike “Doc” Emrick, Part 2

I continue my conversation with the voice of hockey in the United States, Mike Emrick. We talked about hockey’s difficult off-season, predictions for the upcoming NHL campaign, and a baseball team from Pittsburgh. Enjoy.

PTM: It was reported by Tom Gulitti that Steve Cangialosi will be your replacement [on MSG Plus' Devils telecasts]. Could they have picked a better guy?

ME: No, good for Steve, I’m happy for him, because he’s done a great job whenever he’s stepped in, and that has been frequently. He’s earned his opportunity, and I’m sure glad he got it.

PTM: We’re coming off a terrible week for hockey and an awful summer for hockey with all the tragedies. At some point you’re probably going to have to talk about this, and it’ll probably come up during a game. Does that enter your mind?

ME: Yes, because one of the hardest things to do, especially after just three days from that awful plane crash, is to take a chance opening your mouth at a time that is very difficult for a lot of people, particularly family members, and say anything that is going to make sense. I was very heartened by the fact that the first thing Mike Babcock did when he learned of it was that he and his wife went over to Brad McCrimmon’s house, because Brad still has his family in Detroit.

Long ago, when I was covering small-market radio in college, a sheriff and I got in a discussion one day in his office about the hardest part of the job, and he said “it’s delivering bad news to people who haven’t heard it yet.” And I said, “How do you do that?” and he explained “Well, you do have information you have to give, then you just sit there. There’s not a lot more you can say, but you need to be there for them just as company, even though there may not be anything that you can say, you need to be with them while they’re understanding it.” I think we’re still in that phase.

I still wouldn’t know what to say. I would still think that if I said anything, it better be really, really good, and I better be really, really sure of it because it’s hard to be eloquent and override the emotion of loss.

PTM: To switch to a lighter topic, how was following the Pirates back into relevance this summer for you?

ME: It was okay until that 18-inning game with that call, you know, that was hard to swallow. They won the next day, then they go into Philly. I think I was in Chicago at the time, listening to the game on my Blackberry. Their announcers are really good and they tend to be very frank if it was a terrible performance, and it was. They were out of that first Friday night game against the Phillies probably in the first half hour. They were mentioning precise things, and they said “the team just looks fatigued.” Well, they never came out of that [18-inning game]. That was the beginning of their decline, that series in Philadelphia.

It was very hard to, in light of the hope that we had for the first four months, it’s hard to think of what’s happened that last two, where they’ve gotten back to normalcy again. The normalcy of the last 18 years. I guess, unlike other Pirates fans that are a lot younger, I can remember having watched Clemente play, and seeing the 1959 team that eventually won the World Series the next year. I have a lot of good memories, and I still listen to the Pirate games, almost all of them because, you know, they’re my team and it’s a part of summer for me.

But to answer your question, it was great fun to see what they could do. I think we sensed that the depth of their pitching had really come to the floor, but was probably going to get taxed before the summer was over, and I think that happened, and their hitting just didn’t come through for them. So there’s at least something positive to build on for next year, as long as we don’t give ourselves the idea that a bunch of guys had career years that they’ll never have again. If that’s the case, we’re going to be looking at 95 or 100 losses [laughs]. I hope not.

PTM: Finally, it’s a little bit of a different trip for you around the league this year, but what are you looking forward to the most?

ME: Getting the season underway, I think, and seeing a few things. First of all, which way did the shake-up in Philadelphia turn that team. Is it going to turn the Flyers into a magnificent squad? Or is it going to, as some Flyers fans fear, cause them to regress? Who knows? We don’t know, it’s not rigged.

Will the moves in Los Angeles and Buffalo and Washington make those teams better? In Washington, we’re looking at a season that will still not be judged until April, but will it make that defensive commitment that they made in the final two or three months last year, that actually started in the tail end of December after that eight game losing streak. That springboarded them into what The Hockey News says is going to be the Eastern Conference regular season champion, and then can they go on and win from there?

I think there could be some situations like that in Buffalo and Washington and Philadelphia; and in the West, Los Angeles, maybe St. Louis. I think the other question, around Detroit, is they didn’t do a lot of change over the summer. Rafalski retired, they added a couple of okay defensemen, but are those guys gonna’ have enough left to be a Stanley Cup challenger as they were on their way to being last year, until they got way behind against San Jose and couldn’t come back in the seventh game? Those are the questions that I think will be interesting.

I leave the league to deal with the headshot question. Amateur sociologists that we’ve seen a lot of are trying to speculate on the future of the guys that are involved in fisticuffs. Obviously, there are an awful lot of them that seem to have had pretty good lives for themselves, but for real reasons, the focus has shifted to three situations, that are very rare that happened [all immediately following one another], you have to stop and think about that. The answers, I don’t have today, but they will be among things I’ll be looking for at the start of the season. But I think I’m more interested in how the teams are gonna’ play and whether the forecasts that we have for them are born out on the ice.

PTM Interview: Mike “Doc” Emrick, Part 1

When I started Puck the Media, the dream in my heart was (and still is) that one day I wanted to do what Mike Emrick does. I have a lot of heroes, but I know that his voice calling Devils games for so many years is what made me pursue this dream, and is probably the reason the site exists. Doc was kind enough to give me 40 minutes of his time last week (this is actually the second interview we’ve done, the first wasn’t usable because the other side of the story, that of the Fox network, needed to tell never was able to give me an interview) to discuss a ton of things, as he sat at home and played with his beloved dogs and listened to a Tigers game. You know from what everyone’s told you or mentioned in an interview, Doc is as genuine, thoughtful and kind as they come.

It is quite extensive, and I’ll split the interview into two parts, the second of which you’ll see tomorrow at this same time. For now, here’s part one, in which Doc discusses what has changed, what has stayed the same, and answers a question that he’s never been asked before.

Puck the Media: Was this a different summer for you, knowing that you had to prepare for all 30 times as much as you had to prepare for the Devils?

Mike Emrick: Yeah. I think the one thing about it is that you end up preparing for a lot of teams at the same time, because New Jersey played a lot of squads over the course of a season, and if I missed a game against Los Angeles or against Anaheim, the chances were pretty good that I was going to have prepare for them for VERSUS or NBC. It’s probably different in that you don’t burrow in as much to the Devils as I did in the past, though I’ve got a pretty good back log in my memory. But you still have to do the work every day to stay up on things. So, I’ll stay up on them as well as all the other teams, but equally now, rather than spending more time on them than the others.

PTM: Going back to the day you announced you were leaving, how difficult was that to accomplish?

ME: It was difficult in one respect: I’ve never not covered a whole team for a whole year in my 38 years, I’ve always been with one team or the other, following them around. The many things that happens from that is, as you’d expect, is that you develop professional relationships as well as fun times with guys either on the teams or guys on your crew. I think I mentioned earlier in another interview, during the last 18 years that I was there, both of my parents passed away, we had some significant tragedies with the canine members of our family, which, you know are members of our family. Not everybody sees it that way, but we do. And, invariably, when one of those things happened, the Devils were supportive, the fan club was supportive, the network was supportive. When you’re with a team constantly, and traveling with people on a regular basis, those are things that aren’t manufactured, they’re genuine because that’s how they feel and that’s how we feel about each other.

So that is one thing that I’ll miss, because you know with the network situation, you’re doing different teams every week, and you don’t establish really deep roots with one team that lead to circumstances like I just described. Probably that and the notion of that happening in the middle of the summer, when there was really no access that I had to the fan club or the fan population other than the route that I decided to go. Yeah, it was difficult, and there will times, I’m sure, that I will miss those guys and I’ll read a story about a Devils game and say “That must’ve been something, I wonder what Patrik Elias said after.” Those will be normal things that will come up in the course of my year, because of 18 consecutive years and 21 overall. It’s not likely that you walk away and you don’t think about those people anymore.

PTM: Do you know for sure whether you’ll be getting back to New Jersey this season?

ME: I would imagine that I will. Our schedule’s finalized for the first three months, but there aren’t any Devils home games in the first three months. I would anticipate that there will be in the second half of the season, because I see there are a couple of Devils home games blocked off in the second half. The law of averages is that I’m doing half the games that VERSUS does, that I’ll get at least one of them. But I don’t know for a fact that I am yet. I know there’s some games on the road that the Devils have, in the first three months of the season, so I’ll get to see them on the road a couple of times, but I don’t know about the home games yet because the only schedule that was sent out from VERSUS was the first three months.

PTM: Moving more towards VERSUS, you’ve done FOX and ESPN, going way back, and doing VERSUS the past few years. Do you look at doing VERSUS exclusively as a new challenge?

ME: No, I don’t think it’s any different in terms of the way you prepare and the way you deliver the game. I think that part is the same. The difference is the volume of games is greater with them. I was only doing 10 with them in the regular season, and 10 or 11 with NBC, depending on how many they wanted me to do. Now, that will be probably in the neighborhood of 50, with the combined networks (NBC and VERSUS). A lot of the production people will be the same. The only thing different will be the volume of games for them, as opposed to having a lot of those games with MSG Network.

PTM: A reader submitted this question: Is there a moment in hockey history that you were at that you wished you’d been at?

ME: Boy, I don’t know. It’s a real intriguing question. I’ve never been asked that before. Let’s see, I think it would’ve been fun, because radio existed in 1936, I think that was the year that Mud Bruneteau scored the six-overtime winner for Detroit against Montreal. That would’ve been kind of fun to see, and I imagine that those nine periods would have gone faster than maybe six periods would have in the [modern-day] NHL. There weren’t commercial timeouts, and I don’t think they were very good about flooding the ice every intermission. I have a feeling that game was probably played a little quicker with nine periods of hockey in the playoffs than a triple-overtime game would in the modern era. That would have been fascinating.

I think it would’ve been a lot of fun to have been [CBS broadcaster] Bud Palmer at Squaw Valley when the U.S. won the game against the Czechs on the final day of the Olympics in ’60. Obviously, I’m envious of Al Michaels having been in Lake Placid, that would have been a lot of fun, but I was also glad that I could watch those events, although the ABC game was not live. I was in Halifax with the Maine Mariners at the time. We played a game that night in Halifax. I didn’t even see the Canadian telecast of the Soviet Union-U.S. game, which I believe was live. We just learned after our game was over that the United States had won.

I’m sort of all over the map here, because I’ve never really given it thought. The question was about an event that I didn’t get to do that I’d have liked to. I imagine there are quite a few of them. It would have been fun to have called some of Bobby Orr’s games, but I was still in the minors when Bobby retired so I never got to call a game that he actually played in. That would have probably been fun. I did get to see Gordie Howe play in his final season. I was not calling games at that time in the NHL. I guess the answer is there are probably a lot of them when I think about it now, but I’m really glad that I was lucky to see as many as I was able to call.

PTM: What’s different about doing the game on television? What do you notice that’s different about just broadcasting the game?

ME: I think the fact that we’ve gone through one whole generation of arenas. When I came in in 1980, and I don’t want this to sound like complaining, but our position in these arenas is so much different than when I began in 1980 doing television. In Hartford, we were on the last row of the lower bowl, and within two years we were in the rafters where, as Gene Hart – the legendary Flyers telecaster – said, “We’re so high, that Lon Chaney is in the next booth waiting to cut the cord on the chandelier on The Phantom of the Opera [laughs]. I thought that was a priceless line.

In a lot of these arenas, either the arena turned over and the new location was way up and way back, or we were in places like Chicago Stadium or the Aud in Buffalo, where you hung from a balcony and your proximity to the ice. The old Coliseum in Quebec, the same thing. In terms of just the actual nuts and bolts of televising, we tend to be – in the United States – way up and way back, because when this new generation of arenas was built, in the early part of the 1990’s but more toward the middle part of the 1990’s, they tended to copy each other. You would have these pilgrimages of guys that would go around and look at the new arenas that were built, because they were about to build one themselves. It seemed like, for that reason, the location in Buffalo became like the location in Tampa, which became like the location in Florida, which became like the location in Philadelphia, which became like the location in every other place.

A real spoiler was New Jersey, because when Prudential Center was created, we were really spoiled. I don’t know if you ever at our location in the Meadowlands [Editor's Note: Emrick and Glenn "Chico" Resch (as well as the road TV crew) were located in an open booth at the Meadowlands Arena that essentially made up the front row of the upper bowl, right at center ice. It is now left vacant in the arena's current structure, though now that the Nets have left, everything is pretty much vacant there.] , but that was going to be hard to beat.

Fortunately, Lou Lamoriello agreed with Roland Dratch, our producer, that if we were going to have the rights until 2023, and we were going into a new place, we should have a location that we wanted. Roland wanted me and Chico to be down. We have access to the fans, though it’s not open access. It was at the Meadowlands where anyone could come and see us, but there’s still a lot of fans that can, if they have seats there. The important thing is, in proximity to the ice, we’re only 20 rows from the glass, and that enables you to see so much. Many of the visiting teams come in and they wear white, and a lot of times the sleeve numbers are not very clear if you are way up and way back, as you are in Anaheim and Dallas and a lot of those places.

I think the main difference is that, in Canada, we’ve had a turnover of arenas as well, but they still follow the philosophy of Foster Hewitt, who went to Eaton’s Department Store in the atrium in all the different floors, and pretended to call a game in the 1930’s, and went back to the new building in Maple Leaf Gardens and told them how far back and how high he wanted to be to broadcast the games. Ever since then, almost every Canadian rink that you find is designed with that Foster Hewitt blueprint in mind. We tend to find those spaces outside of Prudential Center that are way up and way back.

As we’ve turned over Chicago Stadium and the Aud and all those places, I mention Boston Garden, where you were so close you could hear the punches land when there were fights on the ice. We are now way up and way back everywhere. I said that, not to complain, it has made it more of a challenge to do the job. But I said that just as a fact of how things have evolved, from old arenas to the new ones in the United States.

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow, where Doc discusses his expectations for this season, and having to bring up some of the sports more tragic moments.

NHL Net EP Mark Preisler on Why The New-Look Net Will “Give You a Reason to Pay Attention For Six Hours”

After I finished my conversation with NHL Network executive producer Mark Preisler on Tuesday afternoon, he said, “Well, you’re a fan, you watch all the time, what do you like and what don’t you like?” I was surprised, but I told him that I liked the personalities and that it is always on, but I felt the graphics could use an improvement, and that the network could serve more of a presence than just reruns of classic games in the summertime, especially when there was controversy the magnitude of Ilya Kovalchuk’s endless contract dispute.

It’s a question I asked him at the start of the conversation, as Preisler felt – coming from a decade of experience as an EP at SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight - that the network had upside, but “needed some tweaking.” I think most hockey fans would agree, that while it is great that the NHL Network exists and is on live for quite a few hours each day with NHL Live and On the Fly, that it can sometimes come up a little short, with a lack of a pre-game show, and a times being a bit dull.

That all changes starting today. NHL Live moves from Noon ET to 4PM ET (a permanent timeslot that will continue into next season) as a lead-in for the new, pre-game edition of On the Fly (also something that will return next season). It very much will be a lead-in, too, as Preisler kept reminding me that the network will be live from 4PM ET to 1AM ET every weeknight of the post-season. Oh, and yes, the graphics are getting a revamp, starting today.

As for NHL Live, the radio show will become more of a television show in it’s new timeslot, which was chosen to get “a lot more eyeballs on it” according to Preisler “it seemed like the perfect jumping-off point to our network live, starting at 4 o’clock.” As far as LIVE becoming more of a television show, he said it would also “make it a better radio show, content-wise.” He said they’ll look at “keeping interviews tighter, getting more interviews in that time slot.” The show will also feature b-roll and the aforementioned new graphics.

Getting NHL On the Fly as a pre-game show was important to the NHL Network for two reasons: taking advantage of a valuable timeslot and attracting hockey fans who weren’t necessary interested in local pre-game coverage. “It was kind of a no-brainer. If I’m a Capitals fan, I can likely get what I want from Comcast, but they’re only going to concentrate on the Capitals. If you’re a hockey fan, we’re going to concentrate on every series.”

The network looks to complement the efforts of VERSUS, TSN and CBC during the post-season, but is by no means ancillary programming. “We want our shows to stand out. I think we’ll be able to go a little more in depth than some of our other partners. I see us working with them. For instance, we’re going to team up with TSN and our partners to try and share some resources as well.” To him, the thing that makes these shows watch-able is to not have it as background noise, but “as a place where you can get from solid information. If we give you a reason to pay attention for six hours, then we’re doing our job.”

The network will also utilize NHL.com for stories, as teams of reporters from the website will be at game sites throughout the playoffs, though NHL Network itself will not have a presence at every site until the Conference Final. “That has been one of my main goals since we got here,” says Preisler “NHL.com’s a fantastic site for our fans, they have terrific content and a lot of their content, we should be utilizing. If we have a reporter in an arena, we should be utilizing them.”

Finally, it’s important to Preisler that NHL Network, despite being league-run, doesn’t have to answer to the league as far as breaking news, noting that the NHL Net intends to hire it’s own insider to complement the additional work Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger do for the network. “That’s huge, that’s the only way we can function, to be honest with you. Its the only way to be a legitimate television network.” With Preisler at the helm, the smart money says that NHL Network starts looking completely legitimate in the eyes of hardcore hockey fans, and soon.

Puck the Media’s Uncut Interview with John Buccigross

I thought the interview with John Buccigross was good stuff for the article I did, so I felt it’d be interesting if you got to read everything I talked to him about. It isn’t too long, but I think some of the stuff he said about the reaction inside ESPN to the Gold Medal Game is pretty fun to read about. Thanks again to Bucci, who is a pal to the blog.

Puck the Media: Looking back on it, where does the Gold Medal Game rank on games you’ve seen all-time?

John Buccigross: To tell you the truth, I remember very little about the game outside of Crosby, Parise and hoping Chris Drury would somehow add the final championship pelt with dramatic flair. Because of all the highlight restrictions with Olympic video it’s challenging to have indelible Olympic images seared into our hard drives. When was the last time you saw Peter Forsberg’s postage stamp goal? What I remember most about the US-Canada game is that every TV at ESPN had hockey on it. Sadly, that’s the only time hockey is a national sport. Even the Stanley Cup is mostly a parochial event. I don’t understand why they can’t see what I see or feel what I feel watching hockey. I’m a pretty reasonable dude. But, to somewhat answer your question, when Zach Parise scored I had enough adrenaline to power all seven of Melrose’s garage door openers at his Tampa Bay Lightning financed crib.

PTM: Do you think the game and that tournament/the US run has helped increase the awareness of hockey in the US? At ESPN?

JB: Certainly, the ratings show people watch, lots of people watch. I imagine lots of those people watching are NHL fans but as my ESPN story above shows a lot people who don’t normally watch were watching hockey. And it may have fed fuel to youngsters playing the game and may have caused some kids to take up the game but I don’t think overall it causes people to make hockey consuming a part of their everyday lives. Olympic hockey has very little real effect on the NHL. That is why Gary Bettman has not embraced it wholly-because I’m sure his owners don’t because it doesn’t help their bottom line. Do you ever watch a track and field event on TV that’s not the Olympic? No, you don’t. That’s how the non-believers (of hockey) approach hockey consumption-like we approach track and field consumption. ESPN does not need to be made aware of hockey. They have all the data on the awareness and interest of all sports and make their business decisions accordingly. They work for Disney-they make decisions with their heads not their hearts.

PTM: As someone who is around a lot of different levels of hockey, do you think at the youth level there’s been an effect yet from the Olympics?

JB: It’s interesting, I just don’t hear a lot of NHL talk around the rink . There are a few kids who know the players but they are rare so I wonder how the Olympics effect them. USA Hockey continues to get smarter and evolve as a kid friendly, proactive organization committed to developing the best hockey players in the world and growing the number or participants.

Part of kids not talking hockey is that is we at Sportscenter don’t celebrate and cover NHL players outside of Crosby and Ovechkin. Kids get most of their sports from Sportscenter. Matt Duchene is the talent and excitement equivalent of John Wall of the Wizards yet America has no idea who Matt Duchene is because we don’t show Matt Duchene highlights.

But, at some point it has to stop being Sportscenter’s fault. Their has never been a better time to be a hockey fan. I can listen to a game on sattelite radio in my car as it goes to a shootout, pull in my driveway and run inside my house and catch the shootout on the Center Ice Package before changing to NHL Network and watch the night’s highlights. I can check Twitter for any news before bed. I can wake up and check TSN and ESPN’s Stats and Notes. I can consume all day. If we can get kids to play hockey and then begin to consume hockey via all media then that will grow the game. We will have fans for life. That’s where the growth potential is-kids, the rink, and social media.

PTM Interview: Brian Engblom Goes Inside the Glass

 

Photo Courtesy of Scott Audette Inc. and VERSUS

VERSUS analyst Brian Engblom immediately strikes you as a big team player, and one would imagine anyone who played on any of the legendary Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup-winning teams in the 70’s – as Engblom did in 1977, 1978 and 1979 – would have to be. He appears to take the same approach to broadcasting, as he went from game analyst initially at OLN to one of VERSUS’ main studio analysts. Now, under Sam Flood’s new regime with the network, Engblom has become VERSUS’ #2 inside the glass analyst behind Pierre McGuire.

He’ll be working for the network next on Monday when they broadcast Washington-Phoenix at 8:00 PM ET. Yesterday, he spoke to me about how he came into the role, what he’s looking forward to, and how similar communication on the ice is from when he played.

Puck the Media: So how did your move to the between the benches role come about?

Brian Engblom: When the change was made and Sam Flood started taking over how the television part of the NHL was run at VERSUS, he came in and said to me that he was going to take me out of the studio and put me inside the glass, back on games. That’s where he preferred that I work, and I said “okay,” and last night was the first night.

PTM: So that will be the permanent spot for you from now on?

BE: Well, I’m hoping so [laughs]. That’s where I am right now, and I assume going forward, that’s where I am for the foreseeable future.

PTM: This came very quickly, but you mentioned getting back to calling games, was that something you were looking to do?

BE: I’m fine either way, to be honest with you. I really enjoyed last night, and I’m looking forward to continuing to do that job. I enjoyed the studio a lot, too. The studio happened every bit as suddenly as this did, that was all of six years ago. They just wanted to bring me into the studio and give it a try and see how it worked, chemistry-wise. They were happy with the result. They said “would you consider doing just studio from now on and not doing games?” and I said “Okay, whatever you want, I’ll do it.” Next thing you know, it’s almost six years later.

I think three or four years ago, I’d do a couple of games just to keep my hand in it, but really haven’t done much, except for the outdoor game we did for Comcast 3D. That’s the only game I’ve had in, probably, the last year and a half, two years. You just evolve. This is a business, like anything else, where they ask you to do something and you either say yes or no. When I went into the studio, I said “sure, I’ll give it a shot,” and I enjoyed the heck out of it. I loved working with the crew, everybody from people in the tape department to the camera guys to people in the control room, and of course Bill and Jonesy, and Bill Clement before that.

It just happened and it worked, so now I get different marching orders, and now I go in the direction. I say goodbye to the people in the studio, and get back doing the games. It’s a totally different job, totally different preparation. The game day is completely different, the subject matter really is different, because obviously, you’re game specific and not league-wide. It’s an adjustment period, and I’ll continue to go through that for probably a couple more games, at least until get back in the swing of it.

I’ve done hundreds of games in the past, so it’s not completely foreign to me, by any means. Just that the inside the glass is a different concept, I’ve never done that before. It’s interesting to go back and do something that’s new and a stretch for me. There was some anxiety going into last night because I hadn’t done it before, I had never been down at ice level. Now, having one under my belt and understanding how they wanna do it and what it looks like and what it feels like, more importantly. I look forward to doing it again next week.

PTM: How was the first time out for you? How would you rate your first time out overall?

BE: I really enjoyed it, it was terrific. It’s great being down there, because you do get the feel of the game, which you don’t nearly as much up in the press box. Especially in some of the buildings, because it’s so damn high, you really don’t get any feel. Being right down there and seeing the emotion and line changes and yelling and screaming and the exchanges between the players and what’s going on on the bench, that’s what my job entails. That’s what I’m supposed to do is, relay the feel of the game.

The things that you can do downstairs, you can’t do upstairs and vice versa. When you’re upstairs, looking down at the game, you can see the logic of it, you can almost predict some of the things that are going to happen, just by reading the open space and knowing the mind of a professional hockey player. You can pretty much see how the plays are going to develop. That’s the advantage of being there. When you’re down at ice level, sometimes you can’t see the forrest for the trees, but that’s a good thing. You can feel everything and as I said, you’re right in the action of it.

PTM: How was it working in a three-man booth with Rick Peckham and Daryl Reaugh?

Be: It was great, both those guys are pros and real easy to work with. I’ve done three-man booths before, all in the same place, but I’d never been down at ice level before. I’d done it, I’m going to say four or five times before. Not a lot, but enough to know what it feels like, so I wasn’t really worried about it. It is different when you’re not side by side, you can’t pinch somebody and let them know you wanna say something. Actually, in those other occasions, a lot of times you have to sort of jump in anyway and you develop a feel for it. It’s not all about hand signals and gestures when it’s a three-man booth. I wasn’t really worried about it, you develop a feel and a rythym for what the other two are doing, what their cadence of calling the game is maybe the best way to do it. The business of the game, I know well enough, you’re informed when the commercial breaks are coming up and things like that. That was all clear, and with the whistle you can’t say anything then.

It does create some problems because you can’t manually get somebody’s attention but, you know, you’re bound to step on each other a little bit, as long as it’s not a lot and it’s annoying to the fans, and that’s no good. I didn’t feel like we stepped on each other that much last night. You just sort of have to keep going and sort it out as it goes.

PTM: Does it help when you have a game like you did last night where it’s entertaining and there’s lots of goals, as an analyst, or does it hurt getting you into sort of a flow of what you want to talk about.

BE: Well, the game is the most important thing. Whatever it gives us, whichever direction it sends us, that’s where we’re going. It’s obviously a lot more entertaining for the fans and for us, when goals are being scored. Goals are, actually, maybe the wrong word. If there’s action, and there’s scoring chances. I don’t mind seeing great goaltender saves, too. The puck doesn’t have to go in all the time. When you get deflected pucks, or fluky goals, that doesn’t do a lot for me. That’s obviously part of the game, and you cover it, as the reporter part of you does, that’s what we’re supposed to do. Fluky goals as compared to two or three ten-bell saves by the goaltender, I’d rather have the saves anytime.

It’s really about action and physical play and interaction of the players on their own team and obviously between the two teams. When you get teams that have bad blood between each other, that’s going to be the most fun. You never quite know when that’s going to happen, I don’t even think the players do. It gives you a lot more to look at and to talk about, and it gives me a lot better feel of what the picture of the game is down there.

PTM: As an analyst in general, what do you set out to keep an eye on when you’re preparing for a game and does that change at all with this role?

BE: Whatever the story lines are with the two individual teams, that’s what we’re there to convey. We start with the story lines, where they’re at now, where they are in the standings and how well they have played lately? Who are their best players and how are they playing? How do they match up? Then the game takes on it’s own shape from there, and then we’re reporting on everything from really nice goals to fluky goals, to two teams that ended up not liking each other at the end of the night [in Tampa Bay on Tuesday]. It starts with the basis of knowing what the story lines are with each team, and that’s our job. To get a feel, starting with the morning skate, talk to the coaches, a couple players and, of course, looking at the last half-dozen games, looking where they are in the standings. All those sort of things come into play.

It’s a complete difference in the studio. The studio, you’re dealing with league-wide issues. Many times a game that’s on our air, we didn’t spend much time talking about it because there were other issues league-wide that we were covering, and that’s the job of a national studio presence, to deal with what everybody’s talking about. Whether it’s suspensions to a player or trends or anything else, and the game is left to the crew that’s doing the game. We’re assuming you’re constantly reading about 30 teams and, I think 1000 players played at least one game in the league last year, probably 700-750 at least this year and counting.

It’s really hard, it’s a moving target all the time in the studio, and you try and keep – as best you can – an idea of what the teams are doing and where they’re at, and that’s a very difficult job because there are so many players and so many teams.

PTM: When you finally got down in between the benches, you’re on the ice, was there anything that immediately jumped out to you? I know you played for many years, you won Stanley Cups, but was there anything that jumped out to you from that position?

BE: No, I just went down there and looked at the game from a different perspective. Obviously, I appreciated the up close and personal part of it, and seeing it literally at eye level. That was great, and just getting myself accustomed to that view. I don’t know that there was anything specific, I know the players all big, I know they’re all fast. I’ve been to a lot of morning skates, even still over the years when I’ve been in the studio, so I know all those things. It didn’t really surprise me, it was just sort of an environmental issue for me getting used to the feel of it again, and doing my job. I wasn’t down there as a fan.

It’s different. I can’t afford to be a fan and sit back and miss things, and sort of watch one player, which is what I do when I watch the game as a fan. I’ll just watch a couple of players, and I’ll watch ‘em all over the ice, I don’t care if somebody scores a goal. It doesn’t matter me. I’m just watching a few players. I can’t do that, of course, when I’m down there. You have to go where the action is and take in as much as you can.

PTM: Who are some of your favorite players to watch play when you’re watching as a fan?

BE: It varies from night to night. If I’m watching Detroit, I love watching Lidstrom, I love watching Pavel Datsyuk, because they’re so talented and so smart, I can see what they do away from the puck. I like some of the young players, Drew Doughty, I like to see what he does and watch his development. SOmetimes, I’ll just watch a goalie while the puck is in the zone. Obviously when the puck is at the other end of the ice you can’t watch him. Sometimes, what they do and how they move. I’ll say to myself “I haven’t really watched a goalie in a while, but obviously he’s making a save.” That may sound funny, but of course they’re tracking the puck all the time to get a read or a feel for a goaltender when the puck is on his side of the red line, because that’s when he has to really be paying attention. It varies from night to night. It might be an unknown player that I think is just really playing well, that becomes noticeable. I’ll just say “Oh, I’m gonna’ watch this guy and see what he’s doing.”

PTM: You’re down there last night, obviously, you can hear everything and see almost everything. Has the way players communicate between each other and the way players communicate with coaches since your playing days?

BE: I don’t think a lot’s changed. I mean, it’s still basically the same situations. Players on opposing teams get mad at each other, and there’s a lot of bad language, that’s never going to go away. The talking amongst players on the same team, there’s communication that’s always been around. Yelling “heads up!” [Tuesday night] Tampa, I think it was [Sean] Bergenheim, was going through the neutral zone and he was right in front of his bench and had his head down and, I think it was [Paul] Gaustad was coming at him, was going to smoke him. Half the bench just instantly went “look out!” and he looked up just in time, or he would’ve been just crushed. That’s usual, that hasn’t changed, those things happen. Defensemen yell to each other if they’re open, or if a defenseman’s going back for the puck, his defense partner will say “guy’s right on you.”

You can’t hear everything. There’s a lot of crowd noise to, so you can’t profess to hear everything that’s happening all over the ice, I’m not going to fool you and say I can hear everything, some things I hear from time to time. I’m sure it’s different in different arenas. That’s the first one I’ve done. It wasn’t bad down there, but at the same time I am inside the glass, and there is glass on either side so I can’t hear every thing on the bench, not in that arena. I can’t hear everything on the bench because there is glass between me and the players. At some places there isn’t. I haven’t been through that situation yet, so I can’t comment. I just observe and lift my head as much as I can.

PTM: Is there a rink in particular that you’re looking forward to being down there in the thick of it?

BE: I really haven’t given it any thought, to be honest with you. Some of the places have bigger areas to work than others. As far as favorite buildings I like going to, I would say Chicago, Boston, Madison Square Garden is great. It gets a little congested down there because I’d done sideline years ago with ESPN and I liked to stand down there. Environmentally, I’ll have to go through all around the circuit at least once and then I can answer that question better about which buildings I enjoy, because my work environment is obviously very important to me. It’s different from if I was a fan, just going into Chicago Stadium, the Bell Centre in Montreal or Ottawa or wherever. Those environmental issues and workspace will be very important to how much I enjoy doing the job [laughs].

PTM: Now that you’ve got a game under your belt doing this, what are you looking forward to most out of this new role?

BE: I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms. Just sort of matter of fact, getting used to the environment and feel of it again and just pushing that forward. I look forward to doing games and seeing how it feels in different buildings, for one thing, just my own situation from game to game. It’s great having the action there, that’s the one thing, obviously, that the studio doesn’t have. It’s a sterile environment even when you’re speaking to each other, and to a television audience it’s very sterile and quiet, whereas it’s exactly 180 degrees away from that when you’re doing a game. You’ve got the fans yelling and screaming, you’ve got the game going on and you’re right in the thick of it. There’s an energy that is completely different there and it’s an adrenaline rush, there’s no doubt about that.

Now that the games get more and more important as we go down to the end of the season, you get playoff games. That intensity rises, too. Playoff hockey is terrific at the NHL level, I mean, you can smell it in the air as soon as you walk into any building in the NHL at playoff time. I am looking forward to that, being right in the middle of that again.

PTM Interview: TSN’s Steve Kouleas Talks That’s Hockey 2Nite, Which Premieres Tonight

Steve Kouleas comes off exactly the way you’d want the host of a nightly hockey show to appear to be, especially in Canada, where such content is devoured with a fervor unlike any other sport: excited, well-informed, opinionated, and clearly passionate about the game. After spending many years with The Score, he returns to his former home at TSN to host a nightly hockey show on TSN2, which is positioning themselves to be more like “The Deuce” and less like an alternate feed.

I spoke to Kouleas in anticipation of That’s Hockey 2Nite’s premiere, which is tonight at 11:00 PM ET. It airs in that timeslot every weeknight.

Puck the Media: You were at The Score for 13 years, before that you were at TSN. What drew you back to TSN?

Steve Kouleas: I think it’s one of those situations where you always dream of playing for the New York Yankees, the Montreal Canadiens, or Dallas Cowboys. So, even when I left, part of the original plan was “Someday, son, you’ll be back,” so you go and do your thing and get your reps, and use your ice time to the best of your ability and you realize what your skill set allows you to do.

Then, things changed over at The Score, they changed their philosophy, and the fact that TSN2 is really building themselves up, it was a natural fit. There was a time when you’re working away, you’re happy where you are you just keep things going, but in the corner of your eye, you’re always eyeing the big channels and the big places – Canadian or American. People always say “things happen for a reason.” I’ve actually lived by that philosophy, I think you make your own situation.

It all kind of fell together: TSN2 building into a major power. Naturally, it’s Canada, so a hockey show will work. There’s kind of a marriage, a perfect fit for both sides.

PTM: How easy is it to take the call where they ask you to host your own hockey show five days a week?

SK: [laughs] It’s kind of being like Conan, but instead of going from The Tonight Show to cable, going from cable to The Tonight Show. It was a great call to take. I guess now, in North America or around the world, I’m the only person in the last 10 years to be paying his mortgage by doing a hockey show at night. So I guess I had to be one of the contenders.

I came in and we did our thing and it went very well. At that particular point, I thought “you know what, you just want it more than anything in the world.” When it was finalized, I was extremely happy, but it’s great when you’ve kind of trained for your life. I mean, were all failed hockey players, so in the beginning I wanted to be captain of an NHL team. When you go to plan B, you want to be the next Dave Hodge or Foster Hewitt, depending on your situation. When this came up, and the opportunity was there, it was a natural fit. I’m just happy to do it.

Put it this way, for the last five months, I’ve been at home watching hockey anyway, so I might as well do it at work and go on and talk about it after.

PTM: What I’ve been doing at my website recently is keeping track of the new nightly hockey show in the States as well as On the Fly to notice trends and see how they differ. How do you hope to come out and be different than On the Fly and be different from what’s out there already?

SK: Everybody has their own philosophy, they do different things. I am Canadian, but I feel like I’m kind of an American broadcaster. I think what the Americans do with football and prime time is the best way to handle it. Highlights and breakdowns, opinion and analysis and arguments. If somebody says “when Crosby gets back, I wanna play Crosby and Malkin and Staal on the same line,” we have to push that. Why? Why them together? Why not Malkin and Staal together? I think the debating factor, and it’s always about entertainment.

Rick Jeanneret told me “we’re entertainers.” So I think information’s important, highlights are important. We’re gonna’ have extended highlights. It’s easy to tell you “Penguins won tonight,” but why did they win? “They won, because as we show you here … ” and sometimes, you speak and not everybody can understand it, like Shakespeare. You need to appeal to the lowest common denominator and to push even your viewers at an elite level, because people are watching who are experts, and people are watching who are just learning the game.

I’m big on the analysis, the extended highlights, the debate, the arguments. Kind of pushing the envelope. I don’t if how those other places do it, I don’t think so, but I think that’s one of the reasons were so successful. At the old place, the people said “you know what? I can relate to the show, and it’s real.” What’s real about a show is “how did two guys get an assist on a goal that should’ve been unassisted” and you show it and you talk about. Not just about the CBA or the PA.

I like to think that, in a way, it’s real, and it touches all the big issues hockey fans want to know about.

PTM: Is the goal to hit the ground running from the start, be an attention getting show from the start? Or just balance that and getting into a groove as a nightly show?

SK: We discussed that philosophy not too long ago, but I think whether you’re a fan of Seinfeld or Two and a Half  Men to Cheers going back, the first show kind of sets the standard. You take it up a few notches from there, so you’ll always be better in months two and three and four, and in year two and three, as opposed to right off the hop. I think we do want to hit the ground running with interactive highlight packs, where I’ll be speaking as well as Matthew [Barnaby], during the pack. It isn’t just I speak/he speaks. You can push your analyst always with agreeing or disagreeing with what he says.

On the first night, we’ll be bringing out all our bells and whistles and gadgets, and tell people what we’ve got. There’s kind of a buzz around here. It’s kind of funny, it took until the last year or so for everybody to get involved in nightly hockey shows, you’d think that’s something that would happen at the beginning of time. Actually, it never did until the early 2000’s, and then our show was gone as they changed formats. This is going to be, hopefully, the standard and there’ll be a lot of different things we can promise but one of them is passion, energy and entertainment.

PTM: It seemed kind of strange to me, that until the early 2000’s there was only a nightly hockey show in America, and not in Canada.

SK: It did to me as well, but now were up and running. TSN2 is going to be a major player. It’s great when you have the Leafs on one channel and Crosby/Ovechkin on the other, and then going into a hockey show. I mean, that’s must-see TV during the NHL season, so we’re very excited.

PTM: I noticed that you guys are going to have Kerry Fraser on the show every now and then. You don’t see too many referees go into TV work, what do you think he’ll bring to the table?

SK: I think it’s one of those things, we spend so much time in our business talking about calls, but nobody’s ever had a referee’s side of the story. Why was the call made, what was discussed in the meeting, in terms of what is and isn’t reviewable, what about positioning, experience? I think it’s perfect because he’ll be able to do it either from home or in studio on a specific call during that night, or what people complained about over the last couple of weeks.

It’s one of those situations where he’s not going to be on every night. He’ll be on when there’s controversy, and then on set nights. He’s been officiating in the NHL since the late 1970’s, so he’s gonna give us great perspective over the years and I’m sure some great stories to boot.

PTM: So it’ll be like when FOX has former NFL head of officiating Mike Perreira, where he sort of buzzes in on every controversial call. He’ll just comment whenever there’s something controversial as far as on ice issues.

SK: Yeah, and I think I’m surprised it took until now for Americans to do that with football. I think it’s perfect, because you want to know, for example, a high stick goal. They’re never overturned, usually the call on the ice is the one that stands, you can’t get a camera angle that really makes a difference, and Kerry will take us through video review.

All those kinds of things that we assume, but we don’t know until we have a referee in, and he’ll give you perspective about [whether or not they make] “even up calls” if they made a mistake, or do they like the two-referee system? Is there a rule they want changed? Have you ever made a call depending on your own interpretation of the rule, not necessarily what the league wanted, stuff like that I think will be fascinating, interesting.

Let’s be honest, there are rules in the rulebook that even the most avid hockey fan doesn’t understand. Like the rule about goaltender interference: no goal, no penalty, faceoff outside [the zone]. He’ll be there to explain that. I think it’s something that we all need. You know what? If Gordie Howe stayed late for practice because he wanted to learn different things about hockey when he was 52 and playing for Hartford, then surely as hockey fans and broadcasters and players, we can always learn more about the game and the rulebook by listening to people who’ve been there before.

PTM: You mentioned how much of a real dream this is for you to come back to TSN. The show’s airing in the 11PM slot, which is where sports networks sort of put building block programming, what networks want to build their network on. What’s it like to be the building block for this sort of fledgling network?

SK: It’s an unbelievable feeling, sometimes I just look in the sky and say “God, thank you very much,” I’m truly blessed. I talk to my American friends too, and say “hey, we live in the two greatest countries in the world.” Just by being born here, were so lucky and you look around the world and everything there is, and we get a chance to get up in the morning and have a Starbucks or Tim Hortons, and then go online and read and talk about hockey. Then go into work and do those kinds of things. I feel privileged and honored, and as I told the brass here, I promise I won’t let you down, and I’ll bring energy and passion to the table each and every night, and that’s what I’m going to do. I feel truly blessed.

PTM Interview: Michael McKinley, Author of Hockey: A People’s History

I’ll admit, getting ready for this interview intimidated the hell out of me. This book intimidated the hell out of me, it’s a big one. I’ll tell you, however, that while getting through Hockey: A People’s History is time consuming, it’s worth every second. The companion to an epic CBC mini-series, the book chronicles the sport’s growth from it’s creation to modern times, through NHL classics, international drama and more. I recently spoke to the amiable

Michael McKinley, who originally authored the tome (with, as he’ll acknowledge, tons of help) in 2006 (the softcover was released recently and will be added to the book club on the sidebar, you can currently purchase it here) on the phone from where he currently resides in New York, about the book. He’s much, much smarter than I am, about the game and in all respects. The Oxford grad and one-time South Park and Due South producer spoke about growing up in Vancouver, following hockey in New York and a Canadian perspective on the Miracle on Ice.

Steve Lepore: First, a little background about yourself as a hockey fan, how you became a hockey fan and how you got into writing about hockey?

Michael McKinley: I grew up in Vancouver and you know, even though it’s on the west coast and you don’t get a lot of natural ice in the winter, played hockey as a kid on the street (ball hockey, roller hockey, etc.) and followed the Vancouver Canucks, and follow them now even living in New York City. They still cause me grief. I also have the pleasure of following the Devils, I go to Devils games and like them a lot. I was always interested in the game, partly because I’m Canadian – we’re genetically wired – but just the combination of skill and speed, it makes for a beautiful thing. Perhaps, the beautiful game. I know soccer claims that title, but I think it’s hockey.

I went to England for university and missed the game very much and when I had a chance to write a book with the Hockey Hall of Fame and sifting through the facts and archives I realized how much I didn’t know, and I started getting into all the material there and learning all I didn’t know made me realize I had to write about hockey.

SL: So is there any point where you said “Okay, I’m willing to put the entire history of hockey into a book?”

MM: There was, actually. I wrote a book before the one that is out now, and it was called Putting a Roof on Winter. My idea was that, because I couldn’t find a book that told the story primarily focusing on the NHL, the first indoor game to now … I wrote one. The CBC in Canada was doing a one-hour documentary on Rocket Richard, and they realized, along with the Hall of Fame that they had too much material to put into an hour. So they thought, why don’t they do a long show on the history of hockey? They picked out Putting a Roof on Winter and said, “Yeah, this is what we wanna do” and had me write the book to go along with the TV series Hockey: A People’s History.

So, I essentially wrote Putting a Roof on Winter because I wanted something that told, you know, the whole story of the North American game from the first indoor game in 1875, and that led to the book that’s out now.

SL: Just how long an undertaking was this?

MM: It was actually faster than you would think, and that was because it was part of a TV series. The TV series was 10 hours long, divided into one hour segments and with each segment having it’s own producer and a couple of researchers. It was like working with a team of 30 people to write this book. They would send me their research, and the researchers would go into their archives and do phoners and go visit old retired players or officials in the way I couldn’t. They’d bring me their research and I’d send them mine, so we kind of cross pollinated one another. My stuff wound up in the TV show, and their research wound up in the book.

It was a whole team effort, because if I had to do it myself, to go around to all these places and talk to all these people, I’d probably still be writing it.

SL: Being from Vancouver, there’s so much hockey history coming from there, were you able to draw on a lot of the things from the 20’s and 30’s that come from the western hockey leagues and get that in?

MM: The west coast is actually sort of interesting when it comes to hockey. The Patrick brothers go out there from Montreal, their dad owns a lumber business in the forests of British Columbia and sells the business and makes a half million dollars which, in 1910, is a considerably larger amount of money than it is now. His son convinced him to invest it in hockey on the pacific coast of North America. They had a hockey background in Quebec and the guys had played, they put in artificial ice in Vancouver and built a 10,000 seat arena which was the largest arena in the world. They put ice hockey there and they innovate like crazy.

They introduce things like the blue line, line changers, as back then players played the entire 60-minute game. They introduce numbers on jerseys, they introduce playoffs. There was no playoff system before the Patricks introduced one on the pacific coast. Of course, this benefitted every other team sport and major league sport, that was their idea. They also let goalies fall down to make saves, because that too wasn’t allowed until they did it out west. It was a great hockey innovation by these two guys. They were not part of the NHL, didn’t compete for the Stanley Cup.

The great bar bet you can make about which United States team was the first to win the Stanley Cup. You might think maybe the Bruins or the Rangers, but it was actually the Seattle Metropolitans of 1917, and they were one of the Patricks’ teams. All of that stuff really influenced, it changed the game, and I brought a lot of that to this because there were a lot of stories to tell. I mean, inventing the playoffs alone would be a great story, but all the things the Patricks have done were astonishing when you think of it.

SL: What was the thing that in all the research that ended up in the book surprised you the most, that you didn’t know beforehand and really shocked you when you found out?

MM: Yeah, there was one thing that actually really surprised me. Well there were lots of things, but there was one thing that is quite a long argument and its still playing out today. Back in the 1930’s, there’s this guy Mike Buckna who grows up in Trail, BC. Part of the province’s very strong hockey history. He was the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, and he decides to go back to the old country to look around. One day, he’s waiting for a train and reads in the paper that the Czechoslovakian national team is holding tryouts. He goes and they can’t believe what drops from the heavens, this guy is thousands of times better than what the Czechs had playing for them. One of them had a wooden leg.

He’s really good and they sign him up, he ends up playing for and coaching the team. He teaches them the hockey he learned in Trail, BC. World War II comes along, Buckna goes back to North America, comes back to Czechoslovakia after the War, coaches the team again and wins a World Championship.

Now were beginning the Cold War, and the Russians – the Soviets – had played versions of hockey before, now the air of competition between the Communist Bloc and the free world was coming to be, and they want to be good at this winter sport, ice hockey. So who do they learn it from? Their satellite state, Czechoslovakia, who learned it from this guy from Trail, BC. Of course, when the Russians finally come over to play the NHL in 1972 in the Summit Series, which was a huge deal because North America had always been sending amateurs to play in the USSR, never pros before that, and they’d been getting beaten. This was one we could know is to let our best players play against the Russians.

Team Canada played the Russians, and they were very cocky and thought they would walk over them. Of course, they didn’t, and in the eight game series it came down to the last minutes of the final game of a great, dramatic series. People were marveling at the time of the brand of hockey the Russians were playing – creative, intelligent, skillful, free-wheeling kind of game that was also disciplined – and of course, the grand irony was that once upon a time the game we played in North America was brought to them by this guy in Trail.

I didn’t know that before and, you know, it still plays out in the NHL today with the European players coming over who are always noted for their skill. Its rare that a European comes over and is primarily an enforcer. They might become that, but they don’t come as that. So, this can all be traced back to the legacy of this guy from the mountains of BC and that was an astonishing discovery.

SL: As a Canadian, does it surprise you at all at the amount of American fervor there is for the 1980 team. I know there’s a lot of that in the book, and does it surprise you just how much admiration there is for that team.

MM: It actually doesn’t, because again, still part of that same wave of Cold War ideology that was in existence in 1980 from 1972. The Red Machine, the Russians represented all that was wrong in the world and I think it was a chance for the United States to come up against them since it hadn’t happened on the battlefield. They do it on the ice and it was a real David and Goliath battle, and David wins! I think that it was a huge national moment in the United States. In fact, I think it was a turning point for American-born NHL players, and that was a turning point in my interest in the NHL, was that Miracle on Ice. It was one of the defining moments of hockey in the United States, which has got such a great hockey tradition.

SL: After this book, how do you go about just writing about hockey anymore now that you’ve literally compiled almost everything?

MM: Funny you should ask. What I did was I started writing novels [laughs]. I’m finishing the second one in the series, and it’s called Penalty Killing. I started making it up, is what happened [laughs]. They’re crime novels, and they’ve got a protagonist who used to be the great hope for the fictional New York St. Patricks, but he was cheap-shotted and suffered a career ending head injury. In the first novel he gets framed for murder, so he’s got to solve a murder to save his life. One thing leads to another, obviously there’s a second one, so he survives to another day. [laughs]

Puck the Media Interview: NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly on the World Cup, NHL Network, and Having ‘No Desire’ to Leave NBC and VERSUS

This is new territory for this website, and for me as a writer.  Here I am speaking with the #2 man in the National Hockey League, Bill Daly.  What right do I have to be talking with him?  Every right, because Bill Daly sees it from a perspective that every fan has the ability to access him.  Of all the people purporting the NHL’s new fan-friendly image coming out of the lockout, he seems to take it more seriously than anyone else.

After speaking with him over the phone a week and a half ago, I saw on a Devils website fans posting E-mails they had traded with Mr. Daly about the Ilya Kovalchuk scenario.  I spared him any questions on that, and chose to instead do a big “State of the NHL on TV” that I think you’ll find much more interesting.  It is a milestone for Puck the Media, it is a personal milestone for myself.  I think it legitimizes and validates much of what this site has done.  Enjoy it after the jump.

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PTM Interview: Adrian Dater

Adrian Dater has been a bit of a lightning rod for controversial stuff in this age of the blogosphere, and let’s not go without saying that I personally enjoy every minute of it.  The man speaks from his heart, something too many of us fail to do (though not too many people in the blogosphere, as Adrian’s often at odds with many of us).  Anyway, he’s a solid guy by my judgement and we decided to pick his brain for an interview this afternoon.

Puck the Media: How do you feel the NHL is doing overall, as a league, as we head full force into 2010?

Adrian Dater: Hmm,a good question to get me in trouble with a lot of people right off the bat. Good job Steve!  Honestly? I don’t think i’ts been a great year for the NHL so far.  That could change in the second half, with some great playoff battles,etc. But it was a big disappointment when the Winter Classic did a lesser rating this year than last year, first off. That wasn’t good, no matter how you spin it. A hockey game at Fenway Park, with Bobby Orr on the ice before the game and James Taylor singing the anthem?  That should have been an extra ratings point over last year, at minimum. I don’t base the value of a sport on the “TV ratings game.”  If that were the barometer, the NBA would be rightly seen as a huge disappointment. Ratings and attendance at NBA games are pretty much adisaster around the league now. But the NHL is – and probably always will be, in the U.S. at least – worse in comparison.

Overall, I just think something is a little off right now with the NHL. I’m not sure what it is either. The players almost certainly have never been better, but that may be part of the problem; there just doesn’t seem to be a big separation between the offensive stars and even the fifth sixth D-men on teams now. The defensemen are just SO much better than the old days. You can’t embarrass any of them anymore like you could in the old days. I mean, it used to be that Bobby Orr could go wide on five of the six D-men on any team, with no problem.  Now, the only way you can beat a D-man clean off the rush is if they fall down. In that sense, the overall excellence of every player on the ice has made it still a little too much like soccer on ice at times – and we haven’t even talked about the quality of the goalies yet, which is infinitely better than the past.

Some of the NHL’s other problems aren’t quite its fault exactly. The cutbacks in media (newspapers especially) have hurt the league in the last few years. The New York Times doesn’t even travel with the Rangers or any other New York-based team anymore, for instance. The Arizona Republic doesn’t travel with the Coyotes, and they’ve been a big success story this year. The Los Angeles Kings has – until the L.A. Times began covering them a little more regularly lately – been reducted to covering themselves on their website. No offense to the Kings or any other team that does that, but no real serious fan of a team is going to be satisfied with that. As much as teams say they will cover themselves with “pure impartiality”, I can’t wait to see what happens when one of those teams has a player get in trouble with the law or a G.M. gets fired for some scandalous reason. Yeah, I’m sure we’ll see it covered exhaustively on the team website. Dump on newspapers all you want, but if a paper doesn’t cover a team in any level of any sport, you watch what happens to the popularity of that team in any given market. It does down. You certainly don’t get any quality coverage from local TV or radio anymore, and the big sports networks in the U.S. still consider the NHL only a niche sport not worth giving any significant coverage toward. So, it’s a vicious circle the sport continues to be entrapped in this country.

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