NHL Return to Play

A Finite Amount of Time

When the National Hockey League approached us Mid-May 2020 during the initial planning stages for their Return To Play we faced one of our most challenging design & production feats to date.


“Fill” an Arena without fans

Maintain a high level of energy that can translate both for broadcast and players on the ice

Execute design/build/production in a finite amount of time – games started July 28th

Host cities were unknown until two weeks prior to load-in

Two locations – In a foreign Country – During a Worldwide pandemic

While no major League had returned to play, we knew that this problem would be solved in a variety of different ways in the months ahead. Our goal was to produce the best answer for the National Hockey League. Knowing that fan energy has always been an integral part of the game experience, how could we replace it while enhancing the at-home fan experience?

Our client, NHL Chief Content Officer Steve Mayer, expressed his vision for this new frontier of sports entertainment; we worked with him diligently to make it a reality.

Early on we decided against ‘faking’ an audience in the arena. It was no secret that fans would experience the games from home this year. Instead of masking off the empty arena or pulling the focus in to avoid filming the void we chose to push everything back from the ice – light it – and treat it with scenery. The result felt natural in the space, it enhanced the grandeur of the architecture and made the game feel expansive.

To address the empty seats we covered the first ten rows with a graphic wrap, the light color of the graphic allowed the puck to stand out against the background. We added layers of Semi-Transparent screens, lighting towers, and built a central stage as an iconic backdrop for play. The screens provided the perfect canvas for content from teams and fans to activate the arena in between play, the lighting design further energized the space and created hundreds of new looks that had never been possible for broadcast before.

Two Locations

Foreign Country


Splitting 24 teams into two hub cities meant that we needed to design for two locations and make them as similar as possible on camera. This was no easy task as the two buildings were very different in layout and seating rake. Each production team faced different challenges based on location – in Toronto it was a lack of venue drawing information and rigging points – Edmonton was more remote which created difficulty for vendors to source materials and equipment.

This was uncharted territory for everyone involved. After weeks of working remotely we had set the final plans into motion – then we had to turn our attention to making sure the production environment would be as safe as possible. We traveled 19 supervisors to Canada to lead this effort on the ground, and have proven that with the right guidelines in place, production during Covid-19 is entirely possible.

The bubble is no joke. Leading up to departure everyone was tested three times. Once inside the bubble we were tested daily and expected to follow strict protocols to keep ourselves and everyone else as safe as possible. Masks and social distancing were required, hand sanitizer was always within reach. We were not able to leave the clearly defined areas of the bubble without risking not being allowed re-entry. It took focus on behalf of everyone to stay in the game and get the job done.

With the landscape of public health shifting daily, the National Hockey League did not confirm their host cities until 2 weeks before we planned to load in.

We quickly partnered with vendors who were just as excited as we were to help the NHL

Return to Play in a way that was historic and groundbreaking. No one had ever attempted to rig 30’ tall LED screens and a giant stage in the seating sections of either arena; we were told more than once that it could not be done. These are the folks who worked around the clock with Hotopp to pull it off.

Lighting Design: Tom Kenny

Lighting Equipment: Solotech

Scenic Fabrication: F & D Scene Changes, Great Lakes Scenic Studios

Video: WorldStage

Rigging: United Staging & Rigging

Production Designer/Producer: Gary Wichansky
Designer/Art Director: Christina Fremgen
Production Manager: Steven Dalton
Technical Director: Denis McCubbin
Lighting Designer: Tom Kenny
Lighting Director/ME: Kurt Wagner
Light Board Op/Programmer: Brent Clark
Lighting Tech: Mark Singelis & Denis Ayotte
F&D Scenic Tech: Lance Chenier & Ben Wojcik
United Staging Rigging: Mauricio Moreno (Head) & Brent Nyland (Second)
World Stage LED Tech: Anthony Louis Vannicola III & Dennis Arthur Menard
Producer: Rachel Davis
Designer/Art Director: Elke Schnittker
Production Manager: Anthony Jusino
Technical Director: Geoffrey Quart
Lighting Designer: Tom Kenny
Lighting Director/ME: Corey Tom
Light Board Op/Programmer: Eric Belanger
Lighting Tech: Kevin Chan & Samuel Stuart
Great Lakes Supervisors: Matt Eaton & Pat Fields
United Staging Rigging: Chris Whitacre (Head) & Nick Fedeli (Second)
World Stage LED Tech: John Joseph Denion & Devin Hopkins Carroll