ATLANTA – Without fail, Anson Carter’s face hurts from laughing every week during the filming of “The NHL on TNT.” It started the first week, when the crew joked until a few seconds before the red light flashed and Wayne Gretzky interrupted the chatter to ask, “What are we talking about now?”
Even the Great One isn’t immune to the chirping, as the crew calls it in hockey jargon. He’s the new one on set. His lifelong Gucci tab, undying commitment to sweater vests, or even when he returns to the set can all be points of contention for dissection, roasts, and jokes.
“It’s like being a rookie your first game,” Gretzky said of his first night in the studio. “You don’t want to make mistakes. So I just felt like I would follow their lead and be the guy who plays a little bit of them.”
Carter, the veteran analyst who played in the NHL for 10 years, offered Gretzky some advice after one of their first shoots. “Do you ever go into a game and say, ‘I only want one point tonight and I’m going to take it easy?’ or are you going to think, I’m a savage. Do I get five or six points?”
Turner Sports’ hockey investigation is still in its early stages after WarnerMedia reached a $1.575 billion seven-year deal to split NHL television rights from ESPN, following NBC Sports’ long stint as the flag carrier in the United States. The networks are making a big and lucrative bet that fans will continue to watch professional professional sports and that hockey will remain an untapped source of interest in the US. Turner Sports has the rights to broadcast up to 72 national games each season of the deal, including the annual New Year’s Day Winter Classic, half of the playoffs and every other Stanley Cup final from 2023.
For Craig Barry, the executive vice president and chief content officer of Turner Sports, the network’s number one priority isn’t necessarily growing audiences. They know the dedicated hockey fan will tune in. The goal is to extend and improve the experience of watching the sport by using smart technology, showing different entry points and presenting the game more authentically – such as faster, sharper cuts and better camera angles – similar to how it is presented on television in Canada.
The network strives for hockey and culture to intersect in the studio show where analysts Carter, Gretzky, Rick Tocchet and Paul Bissonnette join host Liam McHugh. It was no small feat to convince Gretzky, arguably the game’s most celebrated player, to join. Gretzky said his family had recently moved to Missouri from California, which made taking regular trips to Atlanta more manageable.
“I had a great scenario in Edmonton where I’ve been with the Oilers for the past few years and loved every minute of it, and really didn’t have the stress and pressure of being in the trenches every day,” said Gretzky, who was partner and vice chairman of the Oilers before resigning in May. “And so when this happened, it was an opportunity to still be close to the game. And I watched every game every night for years. It was fun and exciting and yes, I can see myself doing it for a while.”
The easy formula for Turner to replicate would be the popular “Inside the NBA” studio show, recorded at nearby Studio J. But the personalities of Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith have been syncing for years.
The NHL staff tries to create a show that can stand on its own with a chemistry that’s palpable from the get-go, thanks in large part to Tara August, the vice president of talent relations at Turner Sports, tasked with assembling the crew into a few short months.
On a recent night, the staff appeared to congratulate Tocchet on his recent induction into the Philadelphia Flyers’ Hall of Fame. First, David Gibson, the producer, shared a statistic he discovered during the show’s production meeting with a few dozen staff members.
“All-time leading penalty minutes for Philly,” said Gibson. “Something to be proud of. Lots of bullies over the years.”
Someone asked if any partitions used as a precaution against Covid-19 were left in the studios so that a makeshift penal bench could surround Tocchet in mid-air during the segment. Laughter ensued, a plan was hatched and less than two hours later a surprised and playful Tocchet found himself in Plexiglas for most of the show.
McHugh, a former NBC Sports host and the only member of the on-air crew present at the production meeting, quickly chimed in on the piece. As a presenter, he directs the topics, while letting the analysts react on the spot.
“Actually, there’s a lesson here for kids,” McHugh joked. “Don’t worry and you can get on national TV too.”
For more serious topics he will give a heads up on discussion points. The crew has already made more serious comments, such as the racial slurs directed at Jalen Smereck, a black player, during a Ukrainian Hockey League game, the overdose death of former NHL player Jimmy Hayes and the allegations of sexual assault by Kyle. Beach while playing for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Before Tocchet was introduced to his self-made penalty area, the on-air talent minus Gretzky gathered to discuss their achievements to date.
Bissonnette, a former law enforcement officer who hosts a popular podcast, “Spittin’ Chiclets” on Barstool Sports, recalled Carter addressing Beach’s allegations.
“And when it comes to maybe a guy who doesn’t play much and fills water bottles, maybe I can comment on that,” Bissonnette said. “I see that as if that guy is standing up for the team because we had to deal with that and we didn’t really have to follow through. And then we moved on and started talking about hockey because that’s basically what we want to do, right? It was a shame we had to talk about it, but we don’t want to shy away from those things.”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t any different, Biz, than you were talking about Jimmy Hayes,” Carter said.
Even Gibson, the producer, doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Bissonnette is the wild card of the show.
“There’s a little pause in what you’re going to say because you have to put it through the filter; while if it’s like on the podcast, if it slips out, you can always edit it or you can drop an F-bomb here and there,” he said.
To Gibson and everyone’s surprise, Bissonnette recently dropped an expletive on live television.
“I don’t think that’s a bad thing, especially for TNT,” he said. “I’m sure a lot worse has been said.”
“Well, it was one of them, I grinned at you because it’s, well, the feelings, which I totally agree with, but…” McHugh said.
Bissonnette interrupted: “You shouldn’t listen to the podcast enough because there is much worse said there.”
That brought the group back to the absent Gretzky.
“Gretzky came out, he’s the best player in the world, but Gretzky got to hear the first show,” McHugh said.
“Right away,” Bissonnette said. “Anyone who licks their chops. I couldn’t wait.”
“You weren’t expecting a counter-punch,” McHugh said. Gretzky beat everyone. He’s like a sneaky killer.”
“That’s Wayne’s personality, though,” Tocchet said. “I coached him, I played with him. Everyone is afraid of him. So you’re in the locker room before a game and he’s always wanted a man to chirp.”
Gretzky, scheduled for a limited number of airborne appearances, immediately worked to fit in with the team. Before the season, McHugh got a call out of the blue. His eyes lit up and his wife asked him who the caller was. “It was Wayne Gretzky,” he said. “He recommended an eye doctor.”
“He wants to provide entertainment to the hockey world,” said Bissonnette. “I think he owes it to him for what it got him. I know if I were him, I’d probably be on a beach somewhere and you’d never see me.”
Gretzky plans to return to the show at the Winter Classic and be involved in the playoffs. Turner Sports explores ways to leverage Gretzky’s expertise with new technology. And the channel hopes that an eager hockey audience will come to watch on Wednesday evening and in the spring on Sunday afternoon.
“Sometimes you can be focused on what you’re doing in your job and tackling serious problems or just focused on hockey, hockey, hockey,” Carter said. “But the lines of entertainment and sports, I think here, are so blurred that it’s like, ‘What is entertainment and what sports?’ We’re trying to put both together, and I think it’s worked pretty well so far.”