When you think hockey, chances are the NHL comes to mind. The world’s best players plying their trade, having grown up on a healthy dose of early morning rink sessions, weekends spent playing shinny on frozen lakes and using built up snowy embankments as make-shift boards. But the NHL isn’t the world’s only hockey league, and you might be surprised to know that a growing location for the sport is Australia, where broadcasting hockey has allowed for a substantial growth in the game.
Stephen White and Michael Clough are two of the league’s play-by-play broadcasters. The pair cover games for Fox Sports Australia, along with individual broadcasts for the Melbourne Ice. In a country where sports like rugby and cricket are king, broadcasting hockey both on TV and online has exposed a whole new audience to a growing league that is developing better local players and attracting more talented internationals.
I had a chance to sit down the the two over dinner while on holiday in Australia recently to discuss the game in Australia, how they approach broadcasting an essentially foreign sport to a local audience, what their game prep is like and the challenges they face. All photos in the article, including the feature above are courtesy James Morgan.
What has the development of hockey been like in Australia?
Steve: In terms of last 6-7 years, Australian hockey has exponentially started to grow. The new Ice House built in Melbourne saw participation rates grow 42%, but what really helped kick it off was broadcasting of the Australian Ice Hockey League online and on TV. Some teams were doing audio originally in 2010 and before, but the increased exposure in media and online with stats, developing the website, social media and that’s really helped.
Also the league has had some viral incidents with the “Hit heard round the world” that made TSN which exposed Canadians to the league. Then there was when I became a referee mid-game, leaving the broadcast to finish officiating a game. Michael pushed me out because he saw a good story develop, he could see what was happening and encouraged me to do that, which ended up again on TSN with Kerry Fraser seeing it. Then the year after there was the Del Basso Head Slide goal celebration which was all over the internet, ESPN, everywhere.
That one in particular was really perfect because it was just before playoffs and it made everyone here sit up and really take notice and realise that ‘hey we’ve got a team here, we’ve got hockey in Australia’ but it’s been a culmination of a lot of things. You’ve also got to consider Nathan Walker who is one step away from cracking the NHL, which is really the last frontier for Australians in North American sport and I think that if or when that happens, that’ll tip things over the edge.
Michael: The internet, it’s made getting the NHL so much easier in Australia. NHL TV is easily accessible, you can stream games, video games and you see more people walking around Melbourne with NHL hats or jerseys on which helps get bums in seats. What we find is that once fans come to a game, they love it and retention is excellent and they say that they want to come back for more.
Not every market is easy to get into. Melbourne has been a lot more receptive than Sydney…it’s a real tough market to crack. Their teams haven’t had the same stability or facilities that others have so it’s been a bit of a struggle. Sydney can be pretty fickle sports fans too outside of a few select events through the year.
How do you adjust your broadcast for an Australian audience, compared to broadcasts you watch from the US or Canada?
Michael: When you’re broadcasting hockey, you have to dumb it down a little bit I think. Often times we’ll find ourselves explaining things on a Fox Sports Australia broadcast that wouldn’t even be raised in the US or Canada, because we’ve got to explain the differences of the AIHL compared to the NHL or some of the most basic plays that we have to clarify. You’ve got to assume the person watching or listening is new to the sport and has never seen it before so you have to cater to them compared to a more exposed and experience audience in North America. Hockey can be a pretty confusing sport for someone who’s not familiar with it, the key to broadcasting here is just simplifying it but when you get a good game, it’ll just speak for itself.
Stephen: The key to broadcasting hockey here is to bring in relevant information for the locals, references that they’d get. Comparisons to AFL or cricket that can help draw in local attention. There was a situation last year where a Sydney player went on a bit of a rampage and tried to fight half the Melbourne Ice team and I made a 1970’s AFL reference which made for a nice light moment on the show. We’re probably a bit more relaxed, more of a performance than you’d probably get in North America because that’s what Australian audiences expect, that humour, that casual type of broadcast that’s common here.
We get a handful of Canadians and Americans who pick up games either when they’re here or from over there and they bring up some really specific stuff but we have to recognise that it’s a difference audience. They seem to love the novelty of it, Australians broadcasting hockey. We go back and listen to ourselves and try to put ourselves in the audiences shoes and it must be like an American calling Australian Rules Football.
What’s the relationship like between media and teams in the AIHL, and how does that impact you as broadcasters?
Stephen: Because it’s such a close knit community, it’s a bit easier to get in with the teams. Many of the coaches are really down to earth, pretty forthcoming and great to work with. Most of the teams have good media coverage around the country, particularly in the smaller markets like Newcastle and Canberra. They’ll have newspapers out to write articles, TV stations will pick up highlights and radio stations will help out too. All in all, compared to 2011 it’s gone from a few internet write-ups to mainstream coverage.
Michael: It goes from club to club. Newcastle, Perth, Sydney Ice Dogs are all pretty good, the Bears are starting to come up as well with a radio stream last year. I don’t have too much to do with the Melbourne Mustangs because of my involvement with the Melbourne Ice.
What’s game day like for both of you in terms of player research and what you do in the lead up to a broadcast?
Michael: If I don’t do it the night before, I’ll do it the day of. Things like getting the team lists together and figuring out names and numbers. The league is getting much better providing accurate information and stats, particularly with broadcasting hockey on Fox. I’m not a huge stats guy, I don’t like to rely on them too much. I’ll come up with a few stats to see if I can work them in, but I find that it’ll just give me an overview of things. Steve’s much more of a stats caller, whereas I’m more about the story with the game and how it’s unfolding.
I try not to do too much during the day, relax as much as possible. I like getting to the rink early, at least 90 minutes before a game because I find if I’m stressed before a game then the broadcast isn’t great. I enjoy talking with people before a game or just simply sit in a corner and relax until puck drop.
Stephen: I’m usually balancing broadcasting hockey with things like MMA shows or football shows and broadcasts so there’s a lot to prepare for. The AIHL is my priority so I’ll try and do my weekend research on Monday/Tuesday so it’s done. What I find with the league is that there’s a stable core of local players that stay with clubs or move about the league domestically so you get to know them pretty well, how they skate, things like that. It’s not like other leagues around the world where teams will bring in 4 or 5 guys on a call up basis and you have no idea who they are.
As Michael said, I like stats but I won’t just throw them out there for no reason, I like interesting stats. I’ll also try and have a couple of witty references or puns to throw into the broadcast to break things up if the situation arises. I try to limit myself to 1 per period or 2 per game otherwise it because a bit of a comedy farce.
Night before, day of a game I’ll typically try and relax and not do a whole lot. I like to get to the game about an hour before and just go through my prep. I’ll generally leave the teams alone outside of a quick ‘hey, how you going?’, but generally I’ll just sit on my computer, watch a TV show or movie to just relax. For me the best mindset is to go in relaxed, not tense or stressed out.
I also like to do a lot of self-critiques, so I’ll go back and listen to a game right after to see what I did right, what I did wrong. It’s all about getting the cadence, the flow of the game, feeling comfortable with the format as well. I’m happy with how I’ve improved with that over the last few years but still working on it every game.
What separates good broadcasters from great broadcasters?
Michael: The voice certainly helps. The best broadcasters have a unique sound. In Australia, guys like Dennis Cometti in football or Bill Lawry in cricket stick with you and I think that helps create such an iconic character because of that. But ultimately it comes down to knowing your stuff. When you give an opinion, even if people disagree, you’ve got to make it hard to argue against.
It’s just about calling the game, bringing something new to the listener or viewer. They learn a little about the players, they learn a little bit about the game and they can start to identify and build a following to the teams and players.
Stephen: Dennis Cometti for me is the best in Australian broadcasting with the way that he goes about his business. His cadence, delivery and ability to not get too distracted by the play. But he’ll have presence of mind to throw little lines in, like he was calling a football game and he said “Alberts, passes to Broadhurst…Hawthorn attacking alphabetically”, and to have that in the context of the game while keeping up with the game itself is great.
Knowing your stuff is important, but you’ve got to be distinctive. I love listening to Al Michaels in the US because his voice is so distinctive, he engages the viewer but calls the game in an entertaining way, has a laugh every now and then. At the end of the day, an announcer is giving a performance. The players are giving the athletic performance and the announcer is giving the theatrical performance, that’s your role and for play-by-play person you’re there to tell the story, give the information and entertain.
Describe the relationship between the play-by-play broadcaster and the colour analyst and developing chemistry.
Stephen: I’ll give my take from MMA and hockey because that’s what I’m most familiar with. When I do MMA, the guy I work with is a walking encyclopedia of MMA so I let him tell most of the story and that’s his job…I’ll interject when I need to. With hockey, because it’s such a fast game but there’s defined stoppages you’ve got to have that guy who can take the edge off, who can cover stoppages but also notice things happening during the play and explain why, or describe something behind the play or the setup of a certain event.
Chemistry makes the broadcast better. You look at John Madden and Pat Summerall, but in the NHL I think the best pair is Chris Cuthburt and Ray Ferraro. Someone like Ferraro, he knows everything but he just picks up on stuff that you won’t see at all even if you’re a seasoned fan. His style is excellent, he knows his stuff and he mixes in some lighter moments too. That mix of knowledge and entertainment makes a broadcast very easy and if you’ve got a good colour analyst to work with, 80% of your job is done.
Michael: One thing I’ve always told guys I’m broadcasting hockey with as an analyst is that if you see something in the play, jump in. Because we’re doing TV or online streaming, there’s the footage there to support what’s going on and the viewer isn’t going to miss anything because the play-by-play guy isn’t minutely describing anything. If my colour guy sees something then he can jump in and add it and it’s works back the other way with big events like a hit or a goal where I’ll jump back over the top of him straight away and I think over time guys I work with regularly you get that chemistry.