Celebrating the Team Behind the Team on the Ice
It’s here! It’s finally here!
After nearly six months of pretending to be interested in the World Cup and bluffing our way through Major League Baseball (“how many games in a playoff series?”), hockey officially returns to Washington as the Men in Red hit the ice Thursday in their season home opener at Verizon.
There’s a lot new this year – and as fancy-stats Peter Hassett points out at RMNB, perhaps a lot to look forward to as well. New head office, new coaching staff, new system, and a bunch of promising new players (although this is the only context “new” can be used to describe Brooks Orpik.) That adding to stalwarts like Ovi and Nicky, Fehr and Ward, MoJo and Holtbeast, and we may just have something here.
There may be no promises in the NHL, but there is one iron-clad guarantee we can think of when it comes to Capitals hockey: the Verizon Center fan experience will continue to be one of the most polished and most exciting to be found anywhere in professional sports. And you’ve got the team at the Capitals’ Game Entertainment crew to thank.
Think about it: even before you take your seat, you’re immersed in an entire fan experience. You chat up a Red Rocker, light displays come up and down almost like magic, and the music and the cameras fit seamlessly with the action on the ice. Mites chase pucks, a video rallies a quiet crowd, or sends another one to its feet and somehow a new graphic hits the board featuring that great Cap score of just a few minutes ago.
The game is still the draw, but the entire Capitals experience is a sensory overload that makes a game all the better.
Other than the Red Rockers – or “Ambassadors in Red” as they’re known – the entertainment team generally prefers to remain behind the scenes. As in past seasons, this year we hope to pull back the curtain a bit on all that stuff that you never think about, and introduce those responsible. We’re starting, appropriately enough, with one of the guys ultimately responsible for what happens in Verizon: Tyler Hines.
Hines, 27, is the Captial’s Game Entertainment Manager. A graduate of Georgetown’s Sport Industry Management program, he began with the Caps as an intern and rapidly rose within the ranks.
We spoke with Hines this week about how it all works, and what we can look forward to this year.
Q: We know what the players do during off season. How do all the members of the entertainment team spend their off-season?
A: First and foremost, we spend a ton of time on the Red Rocker auditions. The whole process – recruiting and finding the girls and the auditions themselves – is a lot of fun. We get to pick our squad as far as what we want our ambassadors to look like for the season. This year we had 67 girls come out for the auditions. The first day is mostly fun, and the second day is when we get to know them, their backgrounds, and see their advanced dancing skills. From there is a long process to cut the team down to our 20 ambassadors this year.
Q: So, just who’s part of the Caps entertainment team?
A: We’re all over the spectrum; upward of 50. We have video producers, artists. We have a control room downstairs, a director and a technical director very much like in a broadcast studio, who feed out to all the boards in the arena. We have graphics people who can build on-the-fly graphics in addition to the pre-produced graphics – they’re upstairs with me watching the game live. We have a disc jockey whose been with the team close to ten years. We have sound engineers, spot-light guys, camera guys, and of course the Red Rockers.
Then down on the ice in the penalty box we’ve got Wes Johnson our PA announcer, and he’s accompanied by an assistant, Byron Hudtloff, who doubles as our PA backup. He reads prior to the warm-ups as well as being our liaison to the off- and on-ice officials. When they skate over and read the penalties or the goals to the officials, it’s Byron collecting that information, relaying it to our entire team so we know what to do. Wes doesn’t wear a head-set; he’s totally focused on what he’s saying. So when I’m speaking and directing Wes, I’m actually talking to Byron and Byron directs him.
Q: Where are you?
A: So I’m up in 412. Our DJ is up there, our sound engineer and our video engineer. The four of us are watching the game and right in the mix; all I have to do is watch and talk from there. But the crew is all around – the video control room downstairs, the cameras, the spotlights, Wes and Byron, the Red Rockers – we’re all over.
Q: When do you start rehearing all this?
A: The best way to describe it is how Mike Wurman [Director of entertainment and TV production] put it – it’s like riding a bike, you never really forget, you just have to get back in the rhythm of it. All of us have been doing this for a few years now. Of course, there’s always new people coming in, just like any sports team. We just find our rhythm. But the games are our practice – you can’t simulate a game when you’re not in a game.
We’ve had four preseason games that just wrapped up, and of course there were bumps and bruises along the way. But we ironed those out and hopefully by Thursday we’re back in our rhythm. If you’re a new person coming in, you feel it out for a game or two and then hopefully you’re mixed right in. Now, we do have rehearsals; we’ll rehearse pretty much all day Thursday before the opener. But again, you can really only practice the pre-game portion. Once the game starts, you can’t control any of that.
Q: What does a game night script look like?
A: Yeah, the game night script…I think we’ve done a pretty good job combining all the outputs into one document for everyone to follow at the same time. First, it tells us our timing – both real “Earth” time, and game time. Honestly that clock on the board tells us way more than real-life time. In pregame, it’s counting down to puck drop. During the game it dictates our TV time outs. The intermission clock is 18 minutes long and we have 18 minutes of content to fill. Honestly we only care what the real time is at the very beginning. After that, our clock is the game clock on the board and on the script.
Q: How often do you deviate from the script?
A: Quite often, and that’s something we’re proud of. That’s something I learned from Mike right off the bat – you can’t be beholden to the script because then the show is static. Our major features lie within the TV timeouts each period, and we script those in blocks, so that we can move entire TV time outs at any point based on what’s happening in the game. So if the Caps go on a run and we need a pump video, we can go to that and move entire segments. Same goes if they’re down and we need a rally, or if there’s a fight on the ice – we’re going to stick with the action. We’re not going to go to something else when fans really want to see if Michael Latta is winning this fight. [Ed. note: Yes. Yes he is.]
We want to be fluid – some places don’t have the luxury of that. When I talk with people around the league and other sports leagues, it all depends on your management whether you’re going to be allowed to do that. We’re lucky here in that we can, and that’s exactly what our fans and management want us to do.
Q: What’s it like to get a quiet crowd up on their feet, or rally up the fans?
A: Definitely rewarding. We try to stay within ourselves and not try to take over because at the end of the day, fans are there to see a hockey game. Our job is really to foster their excitement. So if they come and they’re excited about the team, all we have to do is continue that wave. The tougher thing is if the team is not performing well; it’s up to us to kind of shake that off the fans in some respect and get them going in other ways, but for the most part Caps fans want to be excited anyway; all we have to do is get that going.
Q: What new elements can you tell us about.
A: Ooh, that’s a tough one…
Q: OK, what can you tell us about what might be coming?
A: Perhaps no surprise here, but we will be spending a fair amount of production time celebrating our 40th season. We’re hoping to look as deep as the Capitals can go into the past every night and have some kind of tribute to the past every single game this season.
Q: And of course you’ve got the Winter Classic coming up.
A: Definitely. It’s such a big production – obviously the Caps aren’t handling it all themselves, the NHL and the Caps and Nats Park are all coming together to make this happen. I know that some of our crew are going to cross over but nothing’s set yet in terms of who will be serving in what roles. Honestly I’m not sure where I’m going to be yet. But I can say we’re going to be so excited to be there.
Q: How do you decide what elements to include; what makes the cut and what gets dropped?
A: We’ve got so many talented people in our production group. We sit together and brainstorm through ideas, and talk ideas soup-to-nuts. It might be a meeting where we’re going to come up with new ideas. Everyone throws out their ideas and we put them on a big board and then later, you take each idea, going step by step and decide which ones you want to see more developed and which ones aren’t quite baked yet. Usually whoever pitches the idea – if we like it –they’ll go and flesh it out.
Sometimes an idea that sounded good initially doesn’t have a lot behind it and it goes away. Sometimes ideas that were pigeon-holed for whatever reason might turn into something else entirely that we really need; we’re not going to realize that until we actually start trying to think it through in a real-world setting. I can tell you there’s already a few ideas this year where that’s happened. For example, we had a video meant for a specific player. As we started building the video, we realized that this player can’t really be who he is without his teammates, so now it’s a team-based video. That’s pretty cool to watch something like that evolve.
Q: You mentioned the Red Rockers; what can you tell us about the squad this year?
A: 13 new faces out of a squad of twenty, so that’s a lot!
It’s a younger team than we’ve had before. We just finished our photo shoot and everybody did a killer job – the photos are going to look awesome and we can’t wait to get those out. They’re from all over the DMV area; one girl is from Pennsylvania. She’s so committed that she wants to commute 2-3 hours every day to be part of the team. We’ve also got a new coach, Michelle Dee.
She was on the squad for three years previously. She works for DC city council during the day and is just awesome.
Disclosure: Craig’s colleague at work is a returning Red Rocker, Caity. SHE’S GREAT!