Dropping the puck with OLN A behind-the-scenes look as the cable channel debuted its coverage of the NHL.

Posted: October 07, 2005

An hour before Wednesday's first-ever NHL telecast by Comcast-owned cable channel OLN, Jeff Shell dropped by the digital TV production room in the recesses of the Wachovia Center.

Comcast's president of programming was just checking in on his company's little $200 million-plus investment in the rights to televise NHL hockey for the next three years. He wanted to ask the producers a few questions about camera angles, and convey his complete confidence in the staff that would deliver Comcast's first national professional sports telecast.

"Just don't miss anything," Shell told the crew, only sort of joking.

Producer Bryan Cooper assured the boss they wouldn't. They had 18 cameras for the OLN debut instead of the 10 or 12 used for local Flyers broadcasts, and extra tape machines, too.

And the production staff, though excited to be in action after a missed season, hardly was new to the job. OLN wasn't just using Comcast SportsNet's facilities for its debut, it was borrowing the Flyers' production staff, which has been innovating TV hockey for years. Cooper, a maestro of the monitors who has worked in hockey TV for 25 years, called doing the OLN debut on his own equipment "the ultimate comfort level."

Comfort level was a big reason why Comcast-owned OLN chose to do its first national game featuring a Comcast-owned team from a Comcast-owned arena in Philadelphia, home of Comcast headquarters. Having the New York Rangers playing the Flyers just added another decent-size media market to the mix.

In a first, the game-score computer graphic would run as a narrow band along the bottom of the TV screen instead of as a rectangle in the upper-left-hand corner, as ESPN used to do. Cooper said this would let OLN zoom in closer on game action without worrying that a dark block in the corner would cover up a player.

Gavin Harvey, OLN's president, stayed in a Comcast luxury suite during most of the game, frequently pivoting his head away from the ice to watch his channel's telecast on a little TV set behind him, with the sound turned down. He said he'd decided to take a hands-off approach for game day.

"It's like campaigners on election day. Now you just let the voters decide," he said, though he confessed to opening-night jitters. "Big time. I felt like I was lacing up to take the ice."

He conceded there are skeptics wondering why the NHL parted ways with ESPN to go with OLN, a channel known for outdoor-adventure programming, bull riding and the Tour de France. Only this year did the former Outdoor Life Network officially take the word "outdoor" out of its name.

"We knew we could do this, but everyone wants to do a good job to prove it," Harvey said.

After the game, he and the other OLN executives breathed a sigh of relief and made mental notes for the postmortem meetings of days to come. Somebody in the suite said it wasn't bad that the Rangers won. A strong New York team could be good for the league and good for ratings.

As OLN's first postgame show came on, the executives alternately listened to Bill Clement, Keith Jones and Neil Smith talking on TV and checked the critiques and messages of congratulations streaming in on their BlackBerries.

"I just received a lengthy message from my sister critiquing our telecast," Harvey said as he looked up. "I think it's the first hockey game she's ever seen."

Contact staff writer Don Steinberg at 215-854-4981 or dsteinberg@phillynews.com.

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