Text by Brian LeBlanc | Photography by Jamie Kellner
It's 5:30 in the morning and - regardless of the day, the week, the month, his physical location or anything else - John Forslund's day has begun.
"My day starts with a biological clock, even during the summer, at 5:30 every morning, no matter when I go to bed," says the Carolina Hurricanes' television play-by-play voice.
A slave to routine, Forslund is committed to preparation, even if that comes at the expense of shut-eye. "If my routine is altered," he says, "then I don't feel as prepared as I should be. I'd rather not sleep and prep instead."
It's that preparation that makes Forslund one of the most well-respected voices in hockey media. For fans, inviting Forslund and broadcast partner Tripp Tracy into their homes 82 times a season (and more, if national games are taken into account) is as easy as turning on the television and flipping to Fox Sports Carolinas.
But just under the surface is a never-ending conveyor belt of logistics. When does the team plane leave? Who's that goalie that just earned a callup and will be starting his first game tonight? How do I tell the truck I want a replay of that scoring attempt? How will we handle, to appropriate Donald Rumsfeld's infamous phrase, an unknown unknown during the night's broadcast?
Canes Country recently went in depth with Forslund to pull the curtain back on what goes on behind the scenes of a game broadcast. From the differences between local and national game calls, to why he doesn't bring a laptop with him on road trips, to exactly how the telestrator works, you'll find out what makes a Canes TV game tick and how many moving parts are required to keep the machinery humming.
Game Night Prep School
With 31 years' experience in the broadcast booth, there's no shortage of institutional knowledge bouncing around inside Forslund's brain. But enough changes from year to year that it takes a solid month of studying to be ready for the new season, usually beginning around mid-August.
"For a month, I do solid research on all the teams," he explains. "If you stay with it all the time, don't take a break too much - which I don't - you don't lose the knowledge. There are so many guys who jump teams now, if you're not careful, when the season starts you'll be behind. There's far more movement today than there was 10, 20 years ago."
Despite his use of Twitter and a smartphone that's the size of a ham sandwich - more on that in a bit - Forslund is defiantly old-school in his preparation. "I do everything longhand. I don't rely on a computer. I write everything out because it helps me remember things. I have a hieroglyphics sheet that I use that no one can read but me."
Then October rolls around, and all that preparation is revealed as nothing more than a largely Sisyphean task. Once the games get underway, according to Forslund, 90% or more of that information is unused during a game broadcast. "You're basically overprepped," he admits. "You're ready for different scenarios, team-wise, on both sides, and you're prepped for every player. There's 40 guys in the game, including the backup goalies, and I have to have a backstory on 40 people.
"My first game this year is going to be the Kings vs. Sharks on opening night, the night before [the Canes'] opener. I'm going to work really hard at that, but as soon as they drop the puck all that goes out the window. It changes day to day."
And even the amount of preparation Forslund does isn't enough for some curveballs thrown his way.
"We played in Ottawa [this past February]. Robin Lehner gets a concussion and leaves the game. At the morning skate, we see this goalie out there, Andrew Hammond. I go to the Ottawa people - their goalie coach, their broadcasters - and ask about Hammond. They basically say 'listen, don't worry about him. He's just here for today. He isn't even high on the depth chart, but the [AHL] Binghamton goalies have some big games coming up and so we'll use [Hammond] as the backup.'
"But I still researched his story in the event he played. And then he did play, and he goes on to become the Hamburglar. There's always a case where somebody's going to jump in the lineup, and you'd better be ready for that."
Events outside the bubble of professional hockey can also impact a game broadcast. In January 1991, Forslund was calling games solo with the AHL Springfield Indians. One night, he broadcast a game from Hershey, Pa., for an hour and a half - to no one but himself. "We had two phone lines [to transmit the game back to Springfield] and a backup line that allowed me to check in with the board operator," he says. "We started Operation Desert Storm that night. The station in Springfield had cut off the hockey broadcast and gone to ABC News coverage - and no one told me.
"I was checking in and not hearing anything. Finally, the third time I did it, the board op said 'John, we're done. We haven't been on the air. President Bush is addressing the country. We're bombing Iraq.' That was surreal. So I packed up my stuff - within the game, midway through the second period - left the booth and went down to the team bus." For the next six hours, the Indians, with Forslund in tow, listened to the coverage of the war on the bus ride back to Springfield.
Hidden Secrets of the Telestrator
The producer of any broadcast - whether it's a television program, a radio show, a podcast, or any form of media - is the most critical person in the chain of command. Air talent can be prepared for just about any eventuality, but if the producer and the control room aren't in sync with the broadcast booth, that preparation is worth as much as a three-dollar bill.
Like a referee, the best producers are the ones you never notice. Perfection is the minimum expectation - and there's nowhere to go upward from there. Anything less, and the public-facing broadcasters are the ones taking the fall for their producer's mishaps.
"A good producer is vital. A good producer who knows hockey is really good, but that doesn't have to be the case," says Forslund. "Where you run into a problem is someone who doesn't know the game but thinks he does - that's where it blows up."
The working relationship between Forslund, Tracy and producer Jim Mallia is one of mutual respect. Mallia is a name you've probably never heard of, but his experience in producing live sporting events has led him to a freelance career that includes stops at NBC and ESPN in addition to his role with Fox Sports Carolinas on Hurricanes game broadcasts.
Without that kind of relationship, elements like replays that are as fundamental to the game broadcast as the score and time remaining simply don't happen - and those elements are being set up in real time. While Forslund calls the game, Tracy and Mallia are talking back and forth to establish the next topic of conversation at the subsequent stoppage in play.
"During the game, Tripp spends the majority of the game on talkback, talking to the truck and the tape room. The producer navigates Tripp through where the broadcast is going next," Forslund explains. "During play, Tripp will say 'mark that icing,' or 'mark that scoring chance,' or 'mark that turnover.' You could have three things marked between whistles, and they have to determine within seconds which way they're going. The producer will tell Tripp, who will then talk about it at the next whistle."
But what if nothing noteworthy has happened? The director, who chooses what camera shots go out over the air, has to do something. Forslund reveals that there's an open secret in every game broadcast, and those who watch closely will pick up on it: when nothing else is worth mentioning, bail out by showing the coach.
"A bad telecast goes whistle-coach shot again. The better the telecast, the more creative [directors] are with where they go on whistles. If you have a boring game, it's a real challenge."
And if you think there's an inordinate focus on the goaltenders during a game, there's a reason for that: it's another bailout option. With only two goalies on the ice, both of whom are instantly recognizable, it's a lot easier to find them for a stock camera shot than another player.
"Some of these [camera] guys have no idea - they have a roster, and they're searching for 19 in red, and they're trying to find him and he's sitting on the bench," says Forslund. "And they only have three seconds to do this. Or they try to find the coach and they zoom in on the assistant coach. It's a lot harder than it used to be."
At the intermission, when Tracy uses the telestrator to break a play down, the dirty little secret is that the segment was set up long before - and his exhortations to "stop it right there" have already been cooked into the package.
"They'll have an assortment of plays, and after he finishes his interview [with a player immediately after the end of a period], he'll stay on the headset and talk to the truck about the telestration," Forslund explains. Then the truck will pre-produce the segment by drawing the lines on the screen - also not done live, except in rare circumstances - and when the broadcast returns from a commercial they'll roll the package.
In his secondary role calling games for NBC, Forslund says that Eddie Olczyk is the only analyst allowed to use the telestrator live on the air, during periods, with no pre-production. "He's very good at it," Forslund says. "But it's not Tripp, it's not Eddie - it's the tape room that makes it happen. The tape room has to be experienced, and you have to have a good truck to make it happen."
Between the Benches
Forslund's dual role on Canes broadcasts as well as NBC national games gives him a unique perspective. Over the course of a season, he will work with multiple analysts, sometimes at the same time, and sometimes with them not even next to him in the booth.
But Forslund says that his goal is for the call of the game to be consistent no matter the circumstances. It's the routine, mundane as it may be, that makes for a smooth delivery. "If you're changing calls - because of a different analyst, NBC vs. Fox, national vs. Hurricanes - you're going to get lost."
There are, however, certain best practices that perceptive viewers will pick up on during broadcasts, no matter who is analyzing the game. "There's body language involved. This is my rule, and I think everybody [in the industry] uses this. In the playoffs, I work with a variety of people. So I always tell them, when I take a breath, if I pause, it means I see a chance for you to say something. If you have nothing, don't say anything, the game will breathe, and we'll go on. If you do, jump in."
Announcers develop a natural cadence, and understanding the unwritten rules becomes habitual after doing it for many years. "They have a phenomenal feel for knowing the cadence, knowing when to jump in, and getting out," Forslund says. "Not having that can really kill you."
The Between the Benches role was created for Pierre McGuire on NBC in 2006. It was such a success that most local broadcasts now use a mid-bench broadcast position a few times a year. For the Hurricanes, it's a once-a-month feature, and Forslund says that having worked with Tracy since 1998 helps make things run smoothly. In the booth, body language rules the day, but when Tracy is on the opposite end of the rink five floors down, it become all about timing and tone.
Where things get really tricky is when the play-by-play man has two analysts, one in the booth and one at ice level. "In the conference finals, I had Eddie and Pierre," says Forslund. "That's a totally different dynamic. Now it's a three-way conversation that essentially becomes a two-way conversation, and I'm excluded because the two analysts are talking back and forth."
Creating three hours' worth of content does take a toll, but the prep work that Forslund does beforehand makes the job easier. And it's worth noting that the announcers are solely responsible for all content outside of sponsorships and promotional copy. No one has ever told Forslund to stick to a set of mythical talking points, "and I wouldn't do it. I've never been given questions for an interview. I don't believe in that."
On the Road Again
Picture yourself as a media member heading into an NHL locker room following a game. There's a game the next night, so players have quickly scattered - to the shower, to the weight room, to the stationary bikes - before the NHL-mandated five minute clock to allow the media to enter the room has passed. The floor is littered with skates, pads, sweaters and socks. An equipment manager patrols the room with a 30-year-old shopping cart, Canes logo dutifully affixed to the side, picking up the collection of used wardrobe. The media stays in the room for about ten minutes, getting their quotes for the night's story, then they hightail it down the hall to the coach's press conference.
And this is only part of the traveling road show that is a professional hockey team trying to catch a flight.
The local TV crew - camera operators, mostly - doesn't travel with the team. But that doesn't mean they don't get their own frequent flyer miles in. "We've got two or three camera guys from here who work on our local broadcasts who are also used by NBC," says Forslund proudly. "One of our key camera operators, a guy named Doug Wilson from Durham, is on the #1 crew for NBC" - the team responsible for the big-ticket events of the NHL season, like the Winter Classic, the All-Star Game and the Stanley Cup Final.
At a local level, though, and as is the case with most local teams in the NHL, the broadcast is mostly handled by stringers from the area where the game is being played. "The biggest challenge is the [relationship between] the crew and the truck," Forslund says. "The logistics of an 82-game schedule means the games come quickly. Back-to-backs are hard."
The setup means that for 41 games of the year, Forslund, Tracy, Mallia and the Fox Sports Carolinas core group work with 29 different local crews, all of whom are themselves working with 29 other teams. It's a mind-boggling bit of multiplication and makes one wonder how games ever get on the air in the first place. On top of all that, in Forslund's case, it's even more than that because of his NBC responsibilities. During the playoffs, though, the national broadcaster will pitch in to pay for the entire crew to stay together, flying all members of a crew to each game.
In a strange way, a game call on NBC can be easier on Forslund than a local game, simply because he has one job: show up and call the game. "Those games, from a content standpoint, is 50/50 [split between the attention paid to each team]. The call doesn't change much. I'm not going into analyze the game. I have nothing at stake. There are more people producing, which makes it easier on me. I just have to be clean and solid, and do my job.
"It's easier to do that than it is when you're worried about things like: What's coming up? How does this game affect the Canes' next one? Are you doing enough to get people excited and maybe come to the game at home on the weekend? Those are the things that go into play. You have to get your promos in, but if we don't get the right amount of promos in at the local level, people [get upset]. Kids 'n Community wants their promos. Marketing wants theirs. Fox wants theirs. NBC is simply 'here are the promos, here's the game, go to work.'"
Going to work, in one of the more travel-heavy professions, means plenty of time away from home. The crew becomes more than just co-workers: for seven months out of the year, they see each other more than their own families.
"The toughest part of the job is separation," says Forslund. "I'm lucky that we've raised three kids, been married 29 years - that's hard to do in this business. There's a lot of separation and divorce in television sports. It's not easy. I missed a lot of stuff, but you can't get caught up in that. If you're too caught up in it, you probably shouldn't be doing it. My wife knew what I was trying to do, and we've managed to hang in there."
The calendar, though, is a help to hockey announcers, although you get the sense that Forslund isn't a big proponent of year-round schools. "We make a real good effort to be together in the summer," Forslund says. "There's never anything bad about summer. It's always worked well with the school year. This is a hard life for a family, but we've managed."
Brave New World
In thirty-plus years of broadcasting hockey games, some things have remained the same. Others, like the idea of broadcasting a game via telephone line, have been mercifully sacrificed on the altar of technology. (Imagine how ear-splitting it would be to listen to a two-plus-hour game on the radio broadcast in the timbre of a phone call.)
One thing will be certain though: for as long as he's employed in the industry, pick a random night between October and May, and John Forslund will be watching hockey.
"It's a constant progression with regard to who's upcoming on the schedule, watching games from the next three upcoming teams," he says. "Honestly, all I do is watch hockey from the start of the season to the end. Every night. Trust me, it's boring sometimes. I love doing it, but there are nights I wish I didn't have to do it."
Preparing for a game like this, in a manner which becomes more and more routine every time, requires certain practices to maximize time usage. The last thing Forslund can afford is to waste time when there are only so many minutes in the day. With that in mind, he says there is a method which has served him well. "I have a system of what to look for: line combinations, special teams, getting my mind's eye in tune with what they look like. In many of the broadcast locations, you can't just identify the players by the numbers on the back."
When Forslund is watching a game, then, it's less a relaxing time to watch a game than it is a session of film study. Technology makes that task easier, but there are disadvantages to living in a constantly connected world.
"There's no break. If you're not paying attention, you're behind," Forslund admits. "So a lot of it is a help, but a lot of it is a hindrance."
That brave new world of technology explains why, when he's on the road, Forslund carries a smartphone that barely fits in one hand - and nothing else. "There are days I feel like throwing this thing off the wall. This is my computer. I don't travel with a computer. I watch games on this thing constantly, and do a lot of reading. It's changed things dramatically."
By the end of a game night, heading to the airport to catch the next flight to who-knows-where, Forslund is already back to work - if he ever stopped working in the first place. There are more games coming up, whether with the Hurricanes or on an NBC broadcast. The players might sleep on the flight, but Forslund stays awake, preparing. After all, time spent sleeping is time that could be used to prepare for the next game. And the next one. And the one after that.
Finally, high above the ground, flying through the night sky, John Forslund dozes off.
Then, before he knows it, it's 5:30, and time to start another day.