The biggest problem with televising hockey is the game itself. The puck is so small and moves so swiftly that on your 19-inch TV screen, it looks like a runaway bread crumb. Even when goals are replayed in slow motion, the puck can be camera-shy, leaving the imagination to complete the picture.
But as we journey through the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs, area viewers can rejoice in a couple of aspects: 1) the Capitals, after years of being pronounced dead on arrival at the postseason party, actually are alive and well, and 2) the local TV coverage of the games has been darn good.
There isn't a lot of difference in quality between WDCA-TV-20's telecasts of Capitals road games and Home Team Sports' cablecasts of Capitals home games. That's because the key personnel on both productions is identical -- producer Bill Brown, play-by-play broadcaster Mike Fornes and analyst Al Koken.
Now in their second year together, Fornes and Koken appear exceedingly comfortable with each other. While these two gentlemen often look unsure on how to style their hair, they are cocksure on how to call a hockey game. Fornes and Koken can be criticized for a bias toward the Capitals, but it's not nearly as bad as you'll find elsewhere in town, and they generally bring intelligence and insight to a broadcast.
Fornes, who did Hartford Whalers games before coming here, handles play-by-play in low-key, steady fashion. He's adept at following the puck with a minimum of words, and he gets excited in all the right spots. Even his signature call -- the words " . . . and a goal!!! " -- speaks loudly for his quiet, efficient style. Take, for instance, Game 3 of the Capitals-Rangers playoff series. As we watched a breakaway develop to produce Washington's first score, Fornes simply told us, "Bobby Carpenter -- a break. He's in alone. A deke, a shot . . . and a goal!!"
Koken, meanwhile, interjects good analysis without intruding on the game. He plays off his partner well and picks his spots nicely. On replays, he is especially strong -- many analysts often just walk us through a replay, simply repeating a play-by-play as we watch, but Koken makes an effort to point out aspects of the play we might have missed that precipitated the goal or the penalty.
There are days when Koken is flat or just plain unenlightening. But there are never days, thankfully, when he is a former NHL player. Koken, rather, is a sportscaster with a good hockey background. As a rule, ex-jocks make poor broadcasters, and as a rule, ex-hockey players make other ex-jocks look like good broadcasters. Many other NHL cities bear the burden of having ex-stars back-check the language.
The pictures we get from Capitals games largely are quality shots. HTS has a distinct advantage over WDCA in that the regional cable network controls the show at Capital Centre while Channel 20 almost always must pick up the feed it's given at out-of-town arenas. "At Capital Centre, I couldn't ask for anything more," said Brown. "They give us six good cameras, and [WRC-TV-4 sportscaster] George Michael thinks the pictures out of the Cap Centre are the best in the National Hockey League. [When we pick up an out-of-town feed], that's as tough a thing to do as there is for a producer. You have to negotiate with them for the elements you require for your telecast."
HTS' other advantage is the luxury of a 30-minute pregame show.
Then there are the between-period breaks. Hockey insists on two 18-minute intermissions, which is time enough for the viewer to take a shower, change a flat tire and make plans to campaign for a major political office. To fill the time, Channel 20 depends heavily on interviews with players and front-office types, plus highlights. HTS does a bit of the same but throws in its viewer call-in segment, which can grow tiresome. ("Hi, this is Rick from Reisterstown. Can you tell me why all the Capitals wear ice skates when they play?")
Still, the final product on HTS and WDCA is worthy of a Stanley Cup contender. It may be purely coincidental, but as the Capitals have improved markedly in recent years, so have the local telecasts.