Behind the scenes of the first-ever all-women NHL broadcast
CHICAGO -- There's a stoppage of play during the first period of Sunday night's game between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, and Chicago players are parting way for Kendall Coyne Schofield to get an interview with coach Jeremy Colliton.
Coyne Schofield has only a few seconds to get to Colliton, get some insight for the broadcast and return to her rinkside perch between the teams. She stares down her biggest obstacle: the bench the players are sitting on. Coyne Schofield -- all 5-foot-2 of her -- climbs over it to get to Colliton.
Meanwhile, in the production truck, director Lisa Seltzer and producer Rene Hatlelid watch Coyne Schofield on a series of monitors.
"Yes, Kendall, look at her go!" a woman in the production truck shouts. "Climb over that b----!"
Coyne Schofield finishes interviewing Colliton, scoots out of the way, and a few seconds later, the broadcast resumes. A few seconds after that, Coyne Schofield interjects into an on-air conversation between play-by-play woman Kate Scott and analyst AJ Mleczko, giving an anecdote about Blackhawks forward Dylan Strome feeling much more comfortable playing his natural center position.
"She crushed that," Hatlelid remarks. "She jumped in at just the right time."
On International Women's Day, NBC Sports made NHL history by producing the first-ever all-women broadcast on U.S. airwaves. In total, roughly 30 women worked the game for NBC, both behind the scenes and on-air.
"I hope when fans watch this game, they see it as any other game," said NBC producer Kaitlin Urka, who pitched the idea to NBC executives in December. "And I want people to think, this is something that they're going to see all the time, eventually. I want to get to the point where we don't need to make this a big deal. We don't need people writing stories about it and we don't need press releases and it's just normalized."
Urka came up with the idea during last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs. Mleczko brought her teenage daughter into the truck during Game 7 of the Boston Bruins versus Toronto Maple Leafs series. Mleczko asked her daughter what she thought, and she responded: "It was cool, but where were all the women?"
In fact, NBC has dozens of women who work behind the scenes and on air, but they rarely get to all work together. Urka's bosses were all-in from the start. It would be easy to fill a roster; Mleczko and Coyne Schofield regularly work NHL games, as do producers, directors and studio hosts Kathryn Tappen and Jennifer Botterill. The play-by-play position was going to be a bit more difficult to cast -- especially in hockey.
That's when Kate Scott got a call. Scott is a rising star at NBC, calling basketball, football and just about everything else. But the California native had never called a hockey game.
In January, when Elyse Noonan, a VP at NBC Sports called Scott and pitched the idea, Scott was hesitant.
"There was this long, dramatic pause," Scott said. "I could feel the fear welling up inside of me. You know, when your heart starts to race, and you start to sweat?"
Scott said she was flattered by her bosses' confidence but needed a little time to think about it. "My brain and the fear inside of me was trying to think of every excuse I could to get out of it," Scott said.
When Scott hung up, she realized she recognized the feeling. It was the same one that she felt when the San Francisco 49ers asked her to call preseason games back in 2016. Experience, Scott told herself, is an incredible teacher.
"I always raised an eyebrow at these all-women broadcasts before," Scott admitted. "I was always supportive, because I knew it was steps in the right direction, but I was cynical that it was a publicity stunt."
Scott raised those fears to Dan Steir, another NBC exec.
"He said, 'First of all, it's not about you,'" Scott recalled. "He explained that there's a lot of momentum right now with women's hockey -- with Kendall's fastest lap [at last year's All-Star skills competition], and then 3-on-3 at the All-Star Game [in 2020]. And they wanted to build on that momentum. They want to inspire that young woman who -- maybe in the last couple years, since the 2018 [Team USA Olympic] gold medal may have started paying attention. Those girls may be thinking of ways to get involved with the sport, but might not see all of the options just yet. So what if we bring everybody together and show them the possibilities? You can be a gold medalist. You can also call the game. You can direct. You can produce it. You can be a camerawoman or a stage manager."
Scott was sold.
Her schedule wasn't exactly conducive to taking this on, but she was ready for the professional challenge. Since agreeing to the NHL broadcast in January, Scott has covered three different basketball leagues and has traveled to eight cities -- including five cross-country road trips -- and taken a vacation to Mexico. To prepare for her hockey debut, Scott made Sirius XM radio her go-to while driving. She also devoured beat coverage from Blues and Blackhawks writers. She received a ton of support from NBC employees, including legendary play-by-play announcer Doc Emrick.
"Doc said, 'Kate, did you know that Al Michaels had called only one hockey game before he dove into the '80 Olympics?'" Scott recalled. "I thought he was pulling my leg, but he was serious. He told me, 'You call every other sport. You have the tools, the foundation. Just prepare.' Because of the pace, you have to talk quickly, but you don't want to rush things."
Scott likens it to the John Wooden quote: "Be quick, but don't hurry."
There were inherent differences about calling a hockey game, the biggest being the pace. There were way fewer stoppages in play than football or basketball to look down at her board and check players' numbers.
"It's similar to football in that your vantage point is really high up," Scott said. "Everybody has helmets on. So unless they have facial hair, or they're obviously taller or shorter than other players, it's tough to tell them apart. A lot of them all look the same. And as opposed to football, they don't have numbers on the front of their jerseys."
NBC arranged for Scott to call three NHL test games this winter, sitting in the booth and doing a full broadcast that wasn't aired anywhere. She did one alone, one with Coyne Schofield next to her and one with Mleczko. However, the three of them never worked together until Sunday night.
Scott graduated from Cal in 2005, and at the time, the only job she thought she could have in sports broadcasting was as a sideline reporter, because that's the only position she saw other women do.
"And that was almost 20 years ago," Scott said. "I cover mostly college sports at the moment, so I'm interacting with college broadcasters all the time. And to a large extent [especially in play-by-play] they are young white men. They're wonderful, and they are so passionate and love what they're doing. But when people ask, why aren't there more women, why aren't there more African-Americans? Why aren't there? You know why? Because we don't see it enough."
Urka, meanwhile, says she has been "blown away" by the buzz the broadcast generated.
"I think I was a little naive when I pitched it," Urka said. "I just thought it'd be really cool to get to work with other women. I wasn't even remotely thinking of the implications that it was going to have, of this being something that was history-making. Honestly, I just thought, gosh, I would love to get to work with these women. I don't get to see them very often. There's usually only a couple of us in a truck at a given time. How great would it be if we all got to be together to showcase our talent?"
Emptying the notebook
The Blackhawks are still clinging on to slim hope for a playoff spot, and as long as they do, expect them to lean heavily on Corey Crawford, who made his ninth straight start Sunday night against St. Louis. "Not going to commit to anything," Colliton said before Sunday's game. "But he's going to play a lot, I'm sure." Chicago traded Robin Lehner to Vegas and got Malcolm Subban in return. But the 26-year-old Subban (a pending RFA) hasn't received much of an audition yet, playing a total of 1 minute, 10 seconds since the trade.
As the Columbus Blue Jackets remain firmly in the Eastern Conference wild-card mix -- despite dealing with a plethora of injuries this season -- there's plenty of praise to go around. One of the biggest reasons they've seen success is their surprisingly good goaltending duo of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo. This is ironic, because goaltending was supposed to be an area of weakness for this team when it lost Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency.
"You know, everybody thought we were taking a bit of a chance, or we were risky or whatever you want to call it," GM Jarmo Kekalainen told me at the GM meetings last week. "But I always said if you want to look at a potential No. 1 goalie, why not look at your own backups first? We had a good backup in Korpisalo, and we've had our hands on Elvis Merzlikins' development for years. We were confident that he had the talent. Whether he could do it in the NHL -- that's a different pressure level, and a different level of shooters. But he's handled it really well, and we had the confidence that he could."
The NHL is all set to introduce smart pucks for the 2020 playoffs. What's wild to me: Commissioner Gary Bettman said at the GM meetings in Boca Raton last week that the league has quietly tested the new pucks during nine NHL games in nine different buildings since Feb. 6.
"We've used them without anybody knowing about it on a number of occasions," Bettman said. "And there is no issue whatsoever." The NHL can't afford to compromise the integrity of the puck. This is certainly a story to track -- sorry, couldn't help it -- come April.
What we liked this week
This is a 10 on the wholesome scale. Canes prospect Morgan Geekie scored two goals in his NHL debut -- and his whole family tagged along for the interview. Geekie, by the way, scored on both of his shots. He's the third player in the past 20 years to score multiple goals with a 100% shooting percentage in his first career game. Ryan Poehling in 2019 and Derek Stepan in 2010 were the others, and both of them had a hat trick.
Mika Zibanejad's five-goal night was such a big deal, even TMZ wrote about it. Per the TMZ recap of the Rangers throwing a surprise locker room party for the Swedish center: "They all hid in the locker room at Madison Square Garden ... and once Zibanejad walked in -- they surprised the hell out of him with a moshpit!! Watch the clip ... the guys go pretty wild -- even dumping a whole water bottle on the star center's head!!"
After claims of retirement a year ago, John King is back with the All-Hockey Hair Team from the Minnesota high school tournament for 2020. Truly one of our favorite annual events on the hockey calendar:
What we didn't like this week
A really scary situation unfolded when Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk's face was cut by the blade of Montreal forward Artturi Lehkonen on Tuesday night. Luckily, Boychuk is OK. "There has been no damage to his eye," GM Lou Lamoriello reported. "He had quite a night. He felt the skate blade get his eye, but fortunately it just got the eyelid. It took 90 stitches to fix, a plastic surgeon took care of it. I don't want to exaggerate with the stitches because they do use very small stitches, but there were 90 of them." And, Boychuk had time for jokes on Wednesday:
Things could get ugly in Buffalo if the Sabres don't finish the season out strong. They haven't earned a regulation win in March since 2018.
Why oh why can't the Senators stay drama-free? They fired their CEO, Jim Little, after less than two months on the job. Little says it was because of a heated argument with owner Eugene Melnyk. According to the National Post, the Senators made the move when "the team discovered that Little's former spouse published online accounts alleging abusive behaviour during her marriage." As colleague Greg Wyshynski points out here, none of this is a particularly good look.
He became just the fourth player to score five goals in a game in the salary-cap era -- joining Marian Gaborik, Johan Franzen and Patrik Laine -- and Zibanejad was the only one to score his fifth as the game winner in overtime.
In four starts, the Finn posted two shutouts, stopping 104 of 107 total shots for a .972 save percentage and 0.96 GAA. If the Preds make the playoffs, it might be Saros -- not Pekka Rinne -- who starts in net.
He had a four-goal outburst against Nashville, then posted four more assists for eight points in four games (three Oilers wins). Just another week in the life of the potential MVP.
Games of the Week
The Pacific Division has been a bit of a jumbled mess this season, but these teams are separating themselves as the top two. The Oilers -- led by Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid -- still have a chance at surpassing Vegas for the No. 1 seed (something few of us predicted).
The Penguins need to get their groove back before the playoffs start. The Blue Jackets are fighting for their postseason lives. This one will be a good one.
The Chuck Fletcher revenge game! The longtime Wild GM, now with the Flyers, will face his former squad. Philly has won nine straight and might even overtake Washington this week for first place in the Metro. A lot of us left Minnesota for dead, but it's within striking distance of the wild card thanks in part to a breakout campaign from Kevin Fiala.
Quote of the Week
"I'm not the one making the call, but especially the last 30 games, I don't know if anyone has been better than me." -- Vancouver rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes, to The Hockey News, stumping his own case for the Calder Trophy.