I was destined to become a sports fan. My father was a passionate baseball fan, so much so than when his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers blew the 1951 pennant to the New York Giants, yes, that famous (to Dodger fans, infamous) walk-off three-run homer by Bobby Thomson off Ralph Branca, he hurled his desktop radio out his second story window, narrowly missing a passerby looking to fill a prescription at my grandfather’s pharmacy next door. I’ve never done anything quite as violent, at least with a radio.
Seasonally, he would migrate to football and then basketball, back in simpler times when seasons didn’t overlap all that much. But, being the nuanced and somewhat ADHD professional he was even in fandom, that left no room for hockey. I, being the rebel of the family, needed a teacher to educate me on the basics of the game.
So I learned about the game from Peter Puck.
If you’re not of my generation, you may not know about the least-known cousin of an anthropomorphic character–you know, the kind that would have an elephant as a source for a garden hose or kitchen sink. Here, let me bring you up to speed:
The brainchild of NBC executive and New York Rangers season ticket holder Donald Carswell, who conceived the idea and scripted first drafts of the initial episodes, Peter Puck was developed for the television network in partnership with Hanna-Barbera. Designed to help introduce and popularize ice hockey among non-fans (especially children), Peter Puck became an instant and enduring hit with existing hockey fans.
It helped me out, but it was ridiculed by other kids who had dads who could skate or were already fans. And, let me assure, by today’s standards, Peter Puck was super, duper lame.
But the challenge to educate a new generation of fans is still there, particularly for companies who have synergies with networks and platforms that look to engage kids, because if you grab someone early enough, you have them for life. (case in point: moi).
Which makes what ESPN and the NHL attempted last night with an already enticing matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers not only adorable, but also necessary. As ESPN.com’s Greg Wyshinksy explained:
ESPN, Disney and the NHL partnered for a first-of-its-kind broadcast: an entire hockey game recreated in real time inside a virtual environment, featuring 3D animated players whose movements synced with what was happening on the ice at Madison Square Garden, thanks to puck and player tracking data.
The “NHL Big City Greens Classic” features live, real-time volumetric animations of players and teams modeled after characters on the Emmy Award-winning show “Big City Greens.”
The game was multicast on sister (and potentially bundable) sister streaming platforms ESPN+ and Disney+, as well as on linear networks Disney XD and the Disney Channel. Naturally, a marathon of the animated series aired on the linear channels as a lead-in.
And while Alex Ovechkin did not play due to an injury, there was some excitement from another NHL great. The recently acquired Patrick Kane scored his first goal as a Ranger on Madison Square Garden ice. And, look, for as great as it was in real life, as a cartoon, Kane’s goal was downright precious
But while Ovechkin didn’t play, a few members of the Green family did, as the advance press release noted:
Gramma Alice and her son Bill will replace the starting goaltenders for the Capitals and Rangers. Cricket Green will replace a player on the Rangers while Tilly Green will replace one on the Capitals. Other characters might be involved later in the game and during intermissions.
The formula is not new even in this era. As the walls began to be knocked down between CBS and what were the Viacom networks, the NFL and Nickelodeon teamed up three years ago to offer a special feed of a wild-card playoff game, one hastily added when the schedule was adjusted to accommodate the pandemic season. It wasn’t a great game on paper, nor on the field. But it opened up an opportunity to gain a new set of fans, not to mention otherwise indifferent parents. This past season, it occurred as “NFL Nickmas”, and added a reason to watch an otherwise horrid game between two disappointing teams, the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Rams.
Now if you think this is strictly an effort to educate the young, think again. Children’s networks and platforms get a LOT of viewers, many of whom would never watch ESPN, let alone hockey. And on a night when ESPN was committed to college basketball, it gave them an outlet where creative sports fans with MVPD subscriptions could watch the game, albeit with animated characters.
But, hey, plenty of these people saw AVATAR in the theatres. And this was both shorter and more satisfying.
As I don’t have any kids around me who fall into the age bracket that this was targeting, I’d truly love to hear from some of you that did. Did you watch? What did you think? Will you watch again?
Hey, if a piece of rubber could hook me in, I suppose Tilly Green could recruit a few more.