TEA Connect Blog

14 September 2020

Anything is possible! Creating “bubbles” with the NHL - Jeff Dixon reports

The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) webinar on Sept. 9, 2020 - part of the ongoing #TEAdigital content stream helping to keep members and the industry connected - was definitely one for the scoresheets.

Writeup by TEA Member Jeff Dixon

It didn’t matter if you knew how many Stanley Cups Gordie Howe has won, or if you had never even heard of the term “icing.” There was something for everyone - hockey expert to complete novice. “Anything is possible: A panel discussion on creating ‘bubbles’ with the NHL” was a fascinating look behind the curtain of one of the biggest sports success stories to happen during the pandemic.

Want to skip straight to the presentation on video? It's available on TEA TV right here:


Gary Wichansky, CEO/Head of Creative for Hotopp Associates, moderated the discussion. He was joined by a distinguished panel of people who were part of this successful project. They included Rachel Segal, Senior Director, Events & Entertainment for the NHL; Tom Kenny, Lighting Designer for TKLDINC; and Rachel Miller Davis, Producer for Hotopp Associates. In this online session, the panelists took the 75+ industry member attendees step-by-step through the challenging process of designing and constructing the two NHL “bubbles” in Toronto and Edmonton, Canada.

First, Gary provided a little history on the situation. On March 12, 2020, the NHL shut down due to the pandemic. There were still about three weeks left in the regular season. During the next few months, there were many questions. How do they complete the season safely? How do they establish the playoffs? What was it all going to look like? Eventually they landed on the idea of creating an expanded playoff bracket in two complete “safe zones,” aka “bubbles,” where everyone could quarantine together and continue the games in isolation, or as many of the panelists humorously referred to it, “Hockey Jail.”

Gary and Rachel spoke about the fact that one of the most daunting aspects of this entire process was how quickly it had to be done. It wasn’t until July 2nd that they landed on using Edmonton and Toronto for the cities. They had to immediately get to work because the NHL was slated to restart on July 27. That was a short 25 days turnaround time to do it all. For the next two weeks, designs were completed. On July 17, they first arrived in the bubbles with 10 days to complete everything. On July 27, the first puck dropped without a hitch.

The panelists also spoke about how they had to design the look of the games. They had to create a dynamic environment for the home viewers, but also couldn’t distract the players on the ice. Tom discussed the interesting issues of creating and rigging setups over the seating area, instead of using normal stages. Gary also brought up the intriguing scenario of only designing for one side of the arena, instead of having to balance designing for TV viewers as well as those in the 360 degree arena itself. These engaging discussions and the challenges of the process carried lessons and insights for everyone interested in the world of themed entertainment.

Lastly, and most importantly, it should be pointed out how safety - both for the workers and the players - was at the forefront of the process at all times, from the dedicated walkways to the daily Covid testing. This emphasis is key to the true success of the project. We're told that for the entire duration of these NHL playoffs, there has not been a single Covid case in the bubbles.

This discussion, along with the Q&A that followed, gave a clear picture of just how the NHL was able to realize this substantial achievement. It also proved that indeed, "anything is possible" - especially when themed entertainment professionals are on the job and at their best. The project was a success in every way, and likely will continue to provide lessons and a model for future events in the years to come.

*Oh, and for anyone wondering, Gordie Howe, otherwise known as “Mr. Hockey,” won four Stanley Cups, all with the Detroit Red Wings. 

Screenshots provided by Lisa Jey Schanley


Posted by Erica Schwehr



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