Hockey Day in America: How a Collaboration Between the NHL and NBC Hopes to Send “A Real Love Letter to Hockey Fans”

In almost every hockey movie that’s ever been made, you see a moment – in a flashback, or just to start off the motion picture – where there’s a young kid alone, on a frozen pond, simply skating in the atmosphere, developing his love for and skill at the game of hockey. It’s not necessarily like that though, especially in the United States. Often, the path to NHL superstardom for the American youngster is paved through 5AM practices on weekend mornings, parents driving kids sometimes miles away to get a chance to play and achieve their dream of playing professional hockey.

This is the sort of grassroots love and devotion that makes up the American hockey lover the NHL and NBC want to celebrate on it’s first annual Hockey Day in America, which will be launched on the network live from Chicago’s Milennium Park on Sunday at Noon ET, and carry through until the end up the Heritage Classic on VERSUS. NBC Sports/VERSUS Executive producer wants to take time out to, as he puts it “celebrate hockey and to make sure that all those parents who get up at five in the morning, get to understand that they’re part of an incredibly strong nation, a hockey nation.” Flood, a self-described “rink rat” who played the sport in college, knows how great the game is and wants to use this sort of devotion to drive “making it a bigger sport in this country and a bigger part of our society.”

The idea is the brainchild of a few people, but much of the credit given for the origination of it, from both the NHL and NBC, goes to Flood. He had been kicking around the idea of doing something like this for a couple of years, but the idea really started to spark when he was in Vancouver for the Olympics last year, and saw the CBC’s broadcast of Hockey Day in Canada. He said “it was just a great watch and a fun way to celebrate hockey and we thought it’d be a natural. Since USA Hockey already had Hockey Weekend Across America we felt the combination would be pretty fun.” Charles Coplin, the NHL’s Executive Vice President of Content, says it’s a tribute to how both the league and NBC work together, “there was just a thought that an idea like this would resonate with a large group of people. It was just one of those things where we thought it was an idea whose time has come and when you have partners the way we have with [NBC], we just felt that this was something that could be successful on a number of levels.”

But why does hockey lend itself so well to the concept of devoting an entire day to it? While Americans pray to the gods of football every Sunday, and are very passionate about a number of other sports, this is the first time we’ve seen this concept brought to a sport in this country. Flood says “because it’s such a tribal sport, there’s so many people that are so passionate about their teams, and the people who are hooked on the hockey bug are the ones that’ll follow you, and you just gotta’ accumulate them and bring them together in whatever way possible. I think that’s the passion the sport has we want to take advantage of,” while Coplin sees it along the lines of the grassroots theme, envisioning American families that “wake up in the morning, you grab your coffee, you go to the rink, you do the morning skate, kids skate and then the way NBC’s gonna produce this thing – from an outdoor rink in Chicago – it just really fits into the fabric of the sport of hockey.” While any sport could do it, Coplin sees hockey as sport fans play and live with.

Once the idea got running, Coplin says that it’s been very easy compared to the other big events they’ve done, “In terms of the concept itself, for instance, if you take the Winter Classic – the thought of turning a football field into a hockey rink – that’s got some logistical challenges to it. This is more how you build thematically, the logistical aspect is not as difficult doing something like this.” He adds “there really haven’t been any issues. It’s not been heavy lifting. The question is – when it’s over – whether or not we feel we did it the right way, and are we happy with what we did and where we can take it.”

Flood got the idea of doing it in Milennium Park from the NFL’s opening night game (which he produces for NBC) in New Orleans. He said “I was thinking how it was neat to have the defending Super Bowl Champion start the season. It got me thinking about the idea of using Chicago. In a meeting, we were looking at doing it at the Rink at 30 Rock, which has done plenty of shows for us in the past and one of our guys on our team said ‘How great was New Orleans? Why not try the same thing in Chicago? They won the Stanley Cup, let them host the day.'” Flood would like to see this tradition continue, but would prefer the event take place in cold-weather, American cities.

The day will feature a doubleheader, which despite the history of there being no NHL doubleheader on American broadcast television since at least 1980 (and possibly never) the league got no reticence from NBC on. Quite the contrary, says Coplin “NBC wanted to do that. NBC is very much invested and very much on the forefront of creating a lot of this. So, things like the doubleheader, this is something they want to do.” Aside from that, USA Hockey, which Coplin says has “been very supportive in helping us, as they always are with this” will be sending teams to Chicago to play in the background, and Eddie Olczyk will skate the Stanley Cup on the McCormack Tribune Ice Rink.

The day will venture far beyond the Windy City and beyond just NHL games, however. Scott Fusco, a 1984 U.S. Olympian, and a high school hockey opponent of Flood’s, will have his backyard rink in Massachusets featured in remotes throughout the day. This is one of two elements the passionate Boston area – despite not having the Bruins involved – will be featured in throughout the day. A piece on the Boston Blades will air on Hockey Day, as well as during NBC Nightly News that evening. An inner city hockey team at Washington’s Fort Dupont, and a Celebrity Hockey league in Los Angeles, will show off hockey’s widespread tribal culture. No stone has gone unturned to, as Flood calls it “honor everything that makes hockey in this country so special.” Meanwhile, there will be cut-aways to Calgary, which will host the outdoor Heritage Classic on VERSUS, adding up to a total of nine hours and 17 on-air faces paying tribute to this sport.

As for the future? Everyone sees this as annual tradition with a lot of growth potential. Flood says he sees cities such as Boston, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit and Minnesota as places that make up the numerous “really cold-weather, hockey mad cities in this country. You’ve got to pick cities that have the right atmospherics, because you want to be in a cold weather place to celebrate this.” Coplin thinks the focus, for now, is getting it right the first time, but “once we do this in Chicago, I think we’ll have a post-mortem with NBC and notes and thoughts about how to do this next year and then we’ll sort of decide … should it go to another city? Did we do it the right way? The right day?”

In the end, Coplin wants to find a way to draw even more buzz and program even more hours around the day, using NHL Network and He compares it to an event like the Little League World Series, where “you kind of feel all of these cities from all over North America, and all of the kids that take part in that, and really get to know that, and build interest in it so that it culminates in one day. Something where we build this into a lot more of a critical mass where everybody knows about it.”

The most important thing is that, for everyone involved, from NBC, to the NHL, to USA Hockey, to all the fans, it’s about, as Coplin says, “creating a real love letter to hockey fans,” from kids and parents, to rink rats, to celebrities, to all Americans who love this game. Hopefully, we’ll see this as more than just a letter,  but an annual invitation to all the people of this great country to get involved in this wonderful game.

(Special thanks goes out to Sam Flood and Chris McCloskey of NBC Sports, as well as Charles Coplin and Kerry McGovern at the NHL for being very generous with their time)


About Steve Lepore
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