In Booth and on Ice, Plenty of Color Follows Puck
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page C12
The television coverage of the Stanley Cup finals between the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings will have a split personality of sorts. Fox, which owns the network rights and can be seen locally on WTTG-5, will televise Tuesday night's opener and Games 5 and 7, if necessary. ESPN, the cable carrier available in more than 74 percent of U.S. households, has Games 2, 3, 4 and 6, if needed. Every game in the series will be in prime time.
The two production units have devised many innovations over the years to enhance the broadcast and make one of the swiftest sports easier to follow for viewers at home. And both entities also will have their "A" teams behind the microphones, play-by-play man Mike Emrick and analyst John Davidson for Fox and Gary Thorne and Bill Clement for ESPN. They are the best in the business.
Fox features the flashiest production, particularly in its use of the somewhat controversial FoxTrax system, which enhances a speeding puck with a comet trail of color thanks to a computer chip installed in the puck's center.
FoxTrax's development over the past three years came in response to criticism that hockey is tough to televise because it's so difficult to follow the puck, especially when it's up against the boards or moving 90 mph.
Some purists were aghast when a beach ball-sized blue glow was created over the puck to follow its progress, but that has since been scrapped. This season, starting with the All-Star Game, the comet trail has taken over when the puck reaches 65 mph or faster. The puck's speed on shots also is registered on a graphic in the lower right corner of the screen.
"It's something they [Fox] came up with when they entered the world of hockey," said Larry Kristiansen, ESPN's coordinating producer for the sport. "It's their schtick, their signature for hockey, and it has a certain value. I'm all for anything to make the game more popular, and you have to take your hat off to it. I think it's a valuable tool for someone who might not follow the game reguarly. But we think we have the tools to follow the puck without it."
ESPN believes its development of low-level cameras placed around the arena allows viewers to follow the puck without adding streaks of color. ESPN and Fox also have made excellent use of robotic cameras over the years, particularly one placed on the goal judge's cage to show play behind the net.
ESPN started mounting a camera inside the goal in the 1994 playoffs, providing a fabulous angle from behind the goalie that was particularly useful to viewers in Game 5 of the Capitals' recent series against the Buffalo Sabres, showing several Washington shots that missed going over the goal line by inches. Fox occasionally puts microphones on coaches; ESPN prefers sound on referees. Both add immensely to the coverage.
The quality of the announcers at both networks is, to quote one Craig Laughlin, top shelf all the way, with a slight edge to the longtime Fox team of Emrick and Davidson. Both sets of announcers also are catering to a different clientele, with Fox airing its game to an audience that may not be quite as puck-sophisticated as the ESPN crowd.
"We're trying to balance it out to get new people to watch without offending the person who watches hockey all the time," Davidson said. "I don't think teaching hockey is the right word, but we are trying to explain the game simply. We're also trying to find something different. One thing about this network, they're not afraid to try something, and they're not afraid to spend money to do it."
Emrick, who usually will throw in at least one explanation of icing and offside even during a playoff game, described working with Davidson, a longtime and widely respected NHL goaltender, as one of the great joys in his life. He's especially enamored of his partner's pregame work habits also considered a major strength of ESPN's Bill Clement.
"John is unbelievable," Emrick said. "He carries around a legal pad, and before a game, he'll take some yellow paper and fold it into thirds so he can write on every side. By the time he comes back up, he's got five or six of those things in his pockets, all of them filled with stuff he's picked up. Trainers, coaches, players they all wander over and talk to him.
"He opens a tremendous number of doors for Fox and for me, and he sees so many things when we're on the air. He'll count guys on the bench to see if anyone went to the locker room with an injury. He watches everything. It's like playing with Gretzky you make sure he gets the puck because good things will happen."
Both Davidson and Emrick believe good things can happen for the Capitals if they can maintain their level of play.
"I'm not that surprised by Washington," Davidson said. "A lot of us thought they'd be a good dark horse pick. I liked the coaching and the stability he [Coach Ron Wilson] brought in. They'd been hurt so much all year we really never saw their true team. When they were healthy, they looked pretty good. They've gotten better as the playoffs have gone along, and the goaltender [Olaf Kolzig] has been great.
"I like [Kolzig's] attitude because he worked hard to get here. He's got a a ton of confidence, but not cockiness, and he knows how to use that big body. He sticks out those long arms, and in the key situations, he's come through when you need him the most. He's never panicked, and in the playoffs, that's key."
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