The NHL isn’t the only one who uses the All-Star Game as a lab to test different things that could find its way into the game in the future.
This weekend’s events in Toronto are also a chance for ESPN and Sportsnet to experiment with coverage ideas that could be implemented down the line during the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We generally look at the opportunities of these tentpole events (like the All-Star Game and Stadium Series) as an opportunity to look at access and what it gives you,” said Linda Schulz, the coordinating producer for ESPN’s NHL coverage. “We have more content like players in the locker room and getting interviews. It’s also an opportunity for the players and the league to see how comfortable that is and how that works out for them.”
The NHL has allowed more access to in-game interviews of coaches, along with pre-game interviews of players at ice level during warmups. However, more locker room access remains something all broadcasters are fighting for no matter what the league or sport.
This season, the NHL has allowed backup goalies to be interviewed during the game. As Schulz noted, it’s something they’ve only done a few times so far.
“We expect to do it more because of the access and perspective that the backup goalie can give us while action is going on,” she said.
In terms of camera angles and other new technology, ESPN won’t be experimenting that much this year since the game is in Toronto and Sportsnet is the primary broadcaster.
The biggest change the league and ESPN implemented is the retooled skills competition on Friday night. After getting input from the players, gone are the carnival-type rounds that took place in past years. It’s replaced by a format that shows off who has the best all-around skills in the league.
The new format features 12 all-stars competing for points in four of six events (fastest skater, hardest shot, stick handling, one timers, passing and accuracy shooting). The field is then reduced to the top eight, who will take part in a shootout, and then to the final six, who will compete in an obstacle course worth double the points. The winner of the event will earn $1 million.
John Buccigross will call the skills contest for the third straight year. He’s interested to see if the competition level will increase with the prize money on the line.
“The players are the ones that make it. They have to take it seriously. They have to go all out. Kind of like when I grew up as a kid, the all-star games of the late 70s, 80s, even 90s were competitive and then it started to wane,” he said. “In the end, sport sells competition and the players have to bring it.”
P.K. Subban, who will conduct locker room interviews and serve as an on-ice commentator during the skills challenge, lauded the league for talking to the players.
“You’re making it very easy to put on the show. They’re going to feel comfortable. Not only that, they’re going to be excited about it,” he said. “I think all the adjustments have come from the right place.”
Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer and senior executive vice president, thinks the new format will be easy for fans to follow.
“That has been a slight criticism of the past. I think this year you’re going to know, after every single event who’s leading, who needs points, who advances to the end. So hopefully, we have some suspense there,” he said.
The skills competition will be broadcast on ESPN, and Saturday afternoon’s All-Star Game will be on ABC.
ESPN heads into the All-Star break with momentum of its own. Ratings are up 40% over last year, with a 560,000 viewer average for the 17 games on ESPN and ABC.
The network and NHL are hoping ratings for the All-Star Game continue to rebound. Last year’s game on ABC averaged 1.5 million viewers, which was a 31% increase over 2022 and stopped five straight years of declining audiences.
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