Blackhawks turning NBC Sports Chicago Plus into cartoon network for a day

When the NHL aired its first live animated game broadcast in March 2023, Blackhawks president of business operations Jaime Faulkner watched it with her then-5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. Neither knew the cartoon on which the broadcast was based, Disney’s “Big City Greens,” so their reaction caught their mom’s attention.

“My son and daughter were completely engrossed in it,” Faulkner said. “My daughter thought it was more of a cartoon because it had animals. She doesn’t care about hockey, but it was entertaining for her. My 5-year-old at the time who plays hockey thought it was like he was watching a video game being played.”

The concept hit home for Faulkner when her kids rewatched it, thinking it was a TV show rather than a Capitals-Rangers game in cartoon form.

“If we just deliver it in the right way, we can build fandom,” Faulkner said. “We can start to endear them to specific players, endear them to the Chicago Blackhawks.”

After the league aired its second animated game for a national audience last month, the Hawks and NBC Sports Chicago will air the first local animated broadcast for the game against the Stars at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. That will air on NBCSCH+, with the traditional broadcast appearing on the main channel.

When Faulkner learned of the success of the NHL’s first animated game – strong viewership with audiences younger than even the standard Disney Channel and Disney XD audiences – she pressed the league to give the Hawks the chance to produce one locally.

But while the game will be local, the production will take place at the NHL’s offices in New York, where the league has a studio and control room. Hawks TV voice Chris Vosters and ESPN analyst Dominic Moore will call the game as cartoons themselves. The league selected Moore, who played center for 10 teams in 13 seasons (2003-18). They rehearsed on site last week.

“Chris is used to calling a game for adults; he’s not used to calling a game for kids,” Faulkner said. “The way that he characterizes has to be completely different. That’s why we sent him to New York, to get him comfortable but really testing his storytelling skills. Five-year-olds don’t necessarily know what icing and offsides are. As part of the scripting, we want to teach kids the game of hockey.”

That script will include Hawks mascot Tommy Hawk, who will celebrate his birthday in cartoon and costume form. He also will appear on the half-hour pregame show and at intermissions, which will be hosted by Ruthie Polinsky alongside analysts Tony Granato and former Hawk Adam Burish.

Players’ movements will be captured by the NHL’s puck and player tracking, plus Hawk-Eye Innovations’ optical tracking and camera calibration technology, which required the addition of 12 cameras at the United Center. The animation will be created by the Netherlands-based company Beyond Sports.

“The NHL is taking our feed into New York,” said John Schippman, vice president of sports content for NBCUniversal Local Chicago. “That’s when things get flipped over [to animation]. It’s a matter of seconds before that gets converted, which is amazing to me that it can be done that fast.”

The Hawks and NBCSCH began experimenting with alternative broadcasts this season with “HawkCast,” which included guests and iso-cam coverage. It was a delightful departure from focusing on the team’s struggles this season. But even as the Hawks presumably improve, more alternatives may be coming.

“We have to be able to deliver our game in ways that people want to consume it and give them options,” Faulkner said. “So we’re testing a bunch of things right now in the areas that are critical for us in terms of fan growth.

“We’re going to learn a lot of things from [the animated game]. I think it’s going to be successful, we expect it to be successful, and if so, we will then figure out how do we continue to add more animated games.”

The traditional broadcast will have Pat Boyle and Stu Grimson in the studio and John Wiedeman and Darren Pang in the booth.

Remote patrol

Faulkner said the Hawks continue to do their due diligence for their next TV and radio contracts. Their agreements with NBCSCH and WGN Radio expire this year.

“The media landscape is changing daily, and so as we think about our broadcasts, we’re looking at all partners, all options,” she said. “We’re trying to learn as much as we can with what’s happening now. There’s still a lot of work to be done to figure a lot of this out.”

* The Score afternoon co-host Danny Parkins’ first book, “Pipeline to the Pros,” will be released Tuesday. It explores the trend of NBA coaches and executives coming from small colleges and the profound impact they’ve had on basketball and the league.

* The Dodgers-Cubs game Saturday will air on Marquee Sports Network and FS1, where Kenny Albert, former Cub Eric Karros and reporter Ken Rosenthal will have the call.

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