Anthony LaPanta had flashbacks to his childhood while sitting in the concourse of the Xcel Energy Center earlier this week.
With the Minnesota Wild playing the Colorado Avalanche in an exhibition in the NHL’s bubble in Edmonton more than 1,200 miles away, LaPanta called the game for Fox Sports North from the comfort of the Twin Cities.
Emphasis on the word “comfort.”
He watched the game on the big screen in the empty arena, and instead of sporting his usual suit and tie, he was wearing a shirt and shorts alongside fellow Fox Sports North personalities Ryan Carter and Wes Walz.
“I think the last time I called an NHL game wearing something like that and watching it on a TV screen, I was 12 years old pretending I was doing the play-by-play for the North Stars,” LaPanta said with a laugh. “I used to do that as kid, and that was probably the last time I’ve done something like that.”
Such is life during the coronavirus pandemic.
Everyone has been forced to adjust to a new world over the past few months, and Fox Sports North is no different. It will broadcast the qualifying series between the Wild and Vancouver Canucks from afar, something senior vice president Mike Dimond said will be a monumental task for the station. It is similar to FSN’s broadcast of Twins road games, which the station’s announcers and crew produce from Target Field.
“It’s incredible what our crew has done so far,” Dimond said. “I can’t say enough about how they have risen to the occasion to make it seamless. Our goal is that the on-air presentation doesn’t suffer at all. I don’t think it did in the exhibition game.”
Logistically, Fox Sports North gets the “clean feed” from Edmonton, which consists of game coverage, replays and natural sound. That gets relayed back to the Twin Cities, where Fox Sports North layers in its announcers and graphics to make it feel like a home broadcast.
If it sounds simple, it’s not, and there are many challenges for everyone involved.
Someone like LaPanta is used to watching the game in person, and thus, being able to see the whole ice at any given time. That isn’t the case when he’s watching on a monitor, so his process has had to change.
“If I see a line change in person, I can figure out which players are on the ice, and by process of elimination know which player is where,” LaPanta said. “You can’t do that watching on the monitor. You have to wait until that player pops up on the screen. Just the mechanics of calling the game, that was probably the biggest challenge.”
Someone like sideline reporter Kevin Gorg has an entirely different set of challenges. He is usually on the road with the team, and that allows him to have little side conversations with players and coaches here and there. He typically uses the information gained does those talks during his TV reports.
“You bump into guys in the hotel lobby or on the team bus, and that stuff can be gold,” Gorg said. “That access that we usually have is unmatched. That’s what we’re going to miss the most. We’re just making the most of what we can get.”
He complimented the Wild public relations staff with helping him secure interviews needed for the broadcast. He also has stockpiled background information from training camp and laid it out nicely on his homemade placards.
“I’ve got more information than I would ever hope to need,” Gorg said. “That way, I have options and can wait for it to be the right time to use it.”
There were some noticeable differences during the exhibition game that LaPanta and Gorg said will take time to get used to moving forward. Like the fact that at the end of the day, they are still calling the game from an empty arena.
“You kind of shift into normal mode when the game is going because there’s at least the sound of hockey going on in our headsets,” LaPanta said. “Then we took our headsets off during intermission and it was dead silent around us. That was really weird. It was definitely the strangest game I called in the NHL, without a doubt.”
Some other challenges include being at the mercy of the “clean feed” from Edmonton. It doesn’t always line up with what a home broadcast would talk about.
“I remember we came back from a break and there was split screen of the Avalanche goalies,” LaPanta said. “We have nothing to say about those guys because we don’t care who they are going to play in goal.”
While those little hiccups are to be expected as the postseason progresses, it’s a heck of a lot better than the alternative of not having them.
“It is what it is,” LaPanta said. “This is what hockey is going to be like. I’m thrilled they are playing, and it seems like they have a great plan. If this is the way we have to do it to get live sports back on the air, I’m all in.”
As is the rest of Fox Sports North.
“It gives everyone a little sense of normalcy,” Dimond said. “That’s what we wanted to achieve with the broadcast. Just giving people that escape. That’s really important right now.”