The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 23, 2014
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The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 23, 2014

Because hockey doesn’t end in Sochi

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The 2014 Winter Olympics

February 23, 2014

Season S-, Episode 18

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Sporting events are one of the last dependable promotional platforms for American broadcast networks. This February alone, one such demographic- and DVR-busting telecast boosted a third-season sitcom to series-high ratings and alerted a giant audience to the return of an old favorite. That was Super Bowl XLVIII, of course, whose post-game spotlight episodes for New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and multi-part teaser for 24: Live Another Day look downright modest next to the orgy of peacock PR NBC staged during the final weekend of the Sochi Olympics. 

Coupled with previews of Growing Up Fisher and About A Boy, the network snuck out the announcement of two high-profile projects slated for the 2015-16 season, the latter of which came at such a press-unfriendly/word-of-mouth-friendly hour on Saturday that it invited instant accusations of blaming the miniseries fart on the rebooted dog. (In at least one flat circle, the word of mouth plan backfired big time.) It’s one thing to gauge an Olympics audience’s reaction to the comedic potential of a blind J.K. Simmons; it’s another to blindside those same viewers with a “limited” Heroes continuation that won’t debut for another two seasons.        

But these are just the most conspicuous examples of NBC’s Olympics marketing; a subtler campaign has been underway since February 8, one in support of a show that was rebooted at a time when people still liked Heroes: The NHL On NBC. The exclusive Stateside broadcast home to the NHL since 2006, NBC is in a unique position in its presentation of men’s ice hockey during the Winter Olympics. With the possible exception of soccer, there is no Olympic team sport that puts on such a display of well-matched, top-flight professional talent. And with soccer, there’s a more important international competition that takes place two years after every Summer Olympics. There is no World Cup for ice hockey. There was a World Cup of Hockey, which officials now insist could return in 2016. Until then, there’s nothing bigger, no point of national pride more important, than the Olympic ice hockey tournament. Naturally, hockey has been virtually absent from NBC’s primetime coverage of the Sochi games.

I get it: The newsmagazine/highlight show hybrid that NBC Sports has devised for its nightly Olympics check-ins is better attuned to the competitions that happen in short bursts. Your alpine sports, your sliding events, your spinning spandex super skaters: There is no way to fashion similarly short excerpts of a hockey game into equivalent, action-packed tidbits. Last Saturday’s time-delayed Sochi sampler made room for the U.S.-Russia nailbiter, but that was the exception to the rule, because the overtime periods and shootout rounds provided a game-within-the-game that could fit into the round holes in the night’s schedule. Olympic hockey is otherwise treated like a square peg, which is maddening because the network is marginalizing a sport whose top pro league it’s committed to broadcasting through 2021. Here’s a chance for NBC to entice the same viewers to tune in for the same athletes playing the same sport every Sunday between October and May (and practically every week night during that timeframe on the NBC Sports Network). And yet the bulk of Olympic viewers won’t see Carey Price backstop Team Canada to its second consecutive gold medal.

There’s a bit of circular logic above: If Price, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Henirk Lundqvist are going to turn up again on your cable package sometime in the next seven days, why give them the spotlight Mikaela Shiffrin and Shani Davis only get two or three times a decade? The results of today’s gold-medal game certainly bear that out: Canada took the lead in the first period with a slick deflection from Toews, and built its advantage slowly-but-steadily across the next 40 minutes. But if The Peacock was intent on treating its most prominent coverage of the Sochi games as an advertisement for what’s airing during the lengthy, lengthy Olympics offseason, it could do worse to offer a nightly glimpse at the work of Mike Emrick and company.

The NHL On NBC team isn’t composed of the world’s greatest hockey broadcasters, but the commentators do a competent job of presenting a sport that mystifies a larger-than-logical number of American TV viewers. (FoxTrax, anyone?) During today’s Canada-Sweden game, play-by-play man Emrick and analysts Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuire were as culpable as anyone for overhyping Canadian captain Sid “The Kid” Crosby, lingering on the (admittedly remarkable) goal that put his team up 2-0—the first goal of the tournament for the oft-cited greatest thing on hockey skates. McGuire sounded out of his depths, but his usual gig involves interjecting from “Inside The Glass” between the players’ benches, not contributing to the patter between Emrick and Olczyk. The former is a motormouthed pro, and what he occasionally lacks in insight (“It’s a team sport, and this was the best team” he said as Canada prepared to accept its medals), he makes up for in the authority of his play-calling. Adenoidal and quick on his feet, Emrick’s play-by-play sounds like hockey history, and it’s too bad someone in his position can’t enjoy the same amount of Olympics prestige as someone like Al Michaels—the guy who made the most famous call in American sports broadcasting while he was covering a hockey game.     

No matter how much talent is on the ice or in the booth, not every game in an Olympics hockey tournament is going to turn out like The Miracle on Ice, last week’s U.S.-Russia match, or the reliable fireworks displays put on by the American women and their Canadian rivals. That was on full display for the 2014 gold-medal match, which belonged to Team Canada from Toews’ goal forward. (Like Crosby’s goal, it was also Toews’ first of the tournament.) In its standard operating chauvinism, there’s not much incentive for NBC to assemble a hockey package featuring no American players; there can’t be much motivation for the editors and producers to cut to long highlights from a shutout where the losing team only managed four shots on goal in the third period.    

There was some curious course correction from Emrick and team when the blockbuster turned into a blowout; as offensive dominance in the novice mode of NHL 95 once taught me, holding a team scoreless and virtually shot-less isn’t the most impressive feat. Focus then turned to Swedish goalie Henirk Lundqvist, who allowed only six goals prior to this meeting with Canada. Lundqvist gave the game that oh-so-important human-interest angle: As silver medals were distributed, he looked utterly defeated by his inability to stop three of the NHL’s top offensive players. As Emrick’s narration of the medal ceremony turned weirdly muted, the camera zeroed in on the goaltender’s “agony of defeat” expression, digging at the personal aspects of loss that everyday coverage of pro-sports can’t. Henrik Lundqvist will return to New York City from Sochi, pull on the red, white, and blue of the New York Rangers, and finish out the NHL season. There are other games, but they aren’t the gold-medal game, a fact the NBC cameras captured without exploiting the man’s emotions. His, like that of NBC’s Olympic hockey coverage, was a story of missed opportunity. At least he has 13 more episodes of Heroes to look forward to?

Stray observations:

  • At the top of the Closing Ceremony, Vladimir Pozner noted the importance of being able to laugh at yourself, which feels like Sochi in a nutshell to me. And yet, without the viral phenomenon of the stubborn ring that finally opened, the ceremony was a pretty humorless affair. It’s always a little sad to say goodbye to the Olympics for another two years, but tonight’s festivities felt unnecessarily, manipulatively maudlin. Maybe I just hate to see a big, smiling bear cry. But come on, Russia: This is the end of the Olympics, not the end of E.T. The Olympics will be back. And with any luck, the Rio ceremonies will avoid anything as literal as “reflection” being represented by sky-high mirrors.
  • I do not envy anyone who has to narrate an opening or closing ceremony, but Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth sounded quite adrift even with the assistance of pundit Pozner. Would it be possible to do these kinds of broadcasts without all the chatter? At least that way the ceremony could stand on its own flamboyantly psychedelic merits.  
  • Jersey design for the hockey tournaments’ top competitors was a story of highs and lows this year: I love the understated main graphics on the U.S. and Canadian sweaters, but tonal elements and the faux lace-up collar made both teams look like they boasted rosters full of fancy, embossed brochures. There are similar aspects to the Swedes’ traditional getup, but I’m more accepting of those jerseys because the classic yellow-plus-crown motif reminds me of my favorite awesome/terrible NHL uniform: The 1967 Los Angeles Kings.
  • “Doc” Emrick with an insinuating caveat to the factoid about hockey coaches not receiving medals: “Coaches have succesfully stolen medals in the past, but not North American coaches.”
  • Thoughts on Sochi from analyst Mike Milbury, who was not under duress no way, no sir: “It was a terrific event hosted by some very organized people”
  • And that wraps things up for The A.V. Club’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Thanks for reading and watching along—let’s all meet up again for that enticing-sounding Rio 2016 reboot.

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