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Sports Media

This diamond should sparkle

At Fenway, NBC has bases covered

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / December 25, 2009

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It’s hard to imagine that anyone is more qualified than Sam Flood to mastermind NBC’s coverage of the Winter Classic NHL showpiece between the Bruins and Flyers on New Year’s Day at Fenway Park.

Flood, a coordinating producer for the network whose talents have been rewarded with 10 Emmy Awards, is no novice or outsider when it comes to hockey in Massachusetts. He grew up in Dedham, played on an outdoor rink while attending Noble & Greenough, and lettered at Williams College (Class of ’83), where he was the Ephs’ captain as a senior.

“I know what hockey means to this town, and I know what the Bruins mean,’’ said Flood. “I know first-hand. I grew up with it. I know how much fun it is to feel the chill of the air and have the sky overhead as you’re skating. It’s a privilege and a passion to be a part of this, and we will absolutely do it right.’’

So far, the network has done it right. This will mark the third consecutive New Year’s Day that NBC is televising an outdoor NHL game, and the budding tradition has been a remarkable success. Last year’s Winter Classic, a matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks at another iconic ballpark, Wrigley Field, drew 4.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched NHL regular-season game in 34 years.

Flood said the intent is for the game to become an annual “tentpole, showcase event’’ on New Year’s Day, particularly since the holiday is no longer dominated by college football bowl games. But he knows the tradition needs to continue to build. Which explains this year’s choice of venue, a place where tradition is never lacking.

“This is not just a hockey game,’’ Flood said. “Hockey’s wonderful, but this is bigger than that. It’s about the scene. Fenway Park is the star.’’

Bob Costas, who will serve as NBC’s host, shared a similar sentiment during a recent conference call: “I think it’s appropriate that I’m referred to as an ‘event host’ because this is really an event. It’s a hockey game, yes, but it’s also an event. It attracts a lot of people who don’t necessarily follow hockey closely throughout the year.’’

Transforming John Updike’s lyric little bandbox, if only for one game, into what Flood calls “the rink of dreams’’ is a unique challenge in itself. But when the requirements of television are added to the mix, well . . .

“Yes, it can get pretty complex,’’ said Flood. “We learned a great deal during the first year we did it in Buffalo, and we learned more last year at Wrigley. We made adjustments to get the right look, the right visuals.

“The first year, the boards near the ice weren’t painted and it didn’t look quite right; last year, we changed that. Last year, the ice looked sharper than it did the year before.

“We’ve done a very good job from the beginning, but we even have a better grasp of it now when it comes to what works and what doesn’t.’’

Flood said the network will utilize roughly twice the equipment it would for a typical indoor telecast.

“The camera baskets are set up for baseball,’’ he said, “so we spent a lot of time figuring out the right angles and places to put our cameras to make the game shine. We also shoot this bigger and wider than a normal game because it’s about the place as much as the game.’’

And then there’s the airplane that will be used for overhead shots, providing a relatively unfamiliar look at the ancient ballpark.

“You see the image above of Fenway all summer and fall,’’ Flood said. “It’s so familiar, so iconic. So to see it from above, in the winter, with a rink on the field no less, that’s going to be fun, and it’s part of what will help keep people engaged.’’

Of course, for all of the preparation, one element is beyond NBC’s control: Mother Nature.

“Ideally, we’d like it to be about 30 degrees, with a dusting of snow,’’ said Flood, describing what Costas referred to as the snow-globe effect. “Not too cold, but it’s a nice visual if you can see the players’ breath. That would be pretty ideal.’’

For the on-air cast, which includes play-by-play voice Mike Emrick, analyst Ed Olcyzk, rinkside reporter Pierre McGuire, weatherman Jim Cantore, and studio analyst Mike Milbury, it has been easy to get caught up in the spirit of the event.

Milbury, a native son who said his first memories of Fenway include attending a game during the 1967 World Series, built a well-deserved reputation for bluntness as a player and coach for the Bruins before becoming an analyst. (Beyond his NBC duties, he contributes as a studio analyst on NESN’s Bruins telecasts.) But when he speaks of the allure of playing hockey outdoors, his tone falls somewhere between sentimental and poetic.

“We lived on the ponds [growing up],’’ he said. “The excitement was there because there was nobody to tell you where to go, where to line up. It was just mayhem.

“You played until you couldn’t play anymore and were frozen. You maybe brought an orange and broke it open and had that incredible smell of the fresh cold air.’’

Milbury is well aware that he won’t be the only one reminiscing come 1:40 p.m. on New Year’s Day, when the puck drops on the Fenway ice.

“The players will be incredibly excited walking into that venue,’’ he said. “The whole sense of playing outside is a sense of joy, pure freedom without any restrictions, no rules, no regulations. Just go beat around a puck and try to put it in between two old boots and have some fun.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com.

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