During the first two months of 2020, winter sports were in full swing across the country. From high school and college basketball to the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL), everything seemed normal. Fans had no shortage of games to attend in person, watch on television or listen to on the radio.
However, in early March, the coronavirus pandemic began to emerge. In rapid succession, all sporting activities came to an abrupt halt. Over the span of just a few days, all sports leagues ceased play and shuttered their arenas and practice facilities.
The cancellation of sports activities resulted in a double whammy for fans. Not only could they not watch their favorite teams play, they could not even go to local gyms to work out their frustrations, since they too were shut down.
While fans were understandably disappointed, the pandemic shutdown had an even greater impact on sports media. Since there were no games to broadcast, radio and television stations had to scramble to fill airtime with alternate programming. Sports talk programs were hit particularly hard. After all, what is there to talk about on sports talk radio when there are no sports?
Legendary local broadcasters Pete Weber and Willy Daunic experienced the upheaval of the sports media landscape firsthand. Pete, the radio “Voice of the Nashville Predators,” and Willy, the Predators’ play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports Tennessee television and co-host of “Darren, Daunic and Chase” on 102.5 the Game sports talk radio, were in Toronto, Ontario when they learned that their world had just been turned upside down.
“Pete and I went to dinner at Wayne Gretzky's Sports Bar on March 11, the night before we were scheduled to broadcast the Predators’ game vs. the Maple Leafs,” says Willy. “When we returned to our hotel, we learned that the NBA had just suspended its season.”
“As soon as I heard about the NBA, I knew that an NHL shutdown was inevitable,” says Pete. “We received the official news that the league was stopping play the following morning, and we agreed that it was the right thing to do.”
At first, the duo was optimistic that the shutdown would be short-lived. However, as they learned more about the pandemic, they realized that they were in for an extended period without any games.
“The cessation of play caused an immediate disruption in the routines of everyone involved in covering the NHL. For many, it also caused a disruption of income,” says Pete. “Fortunately for us, the Predators remained extremely loyal and supportive of their employees throughout the pandemic shutdown.”
“For me, the biggest adjustment was to adapt to the change in the pace of my life,” says Willy. “The NHL season is like a whirlwind, filled with lots of travel and the excitement, especially during March, as the regular season reaches its peak. Therefore, when everything shut down so quickly, it felt like whiplash, like I had just slammed on the brakes of a speeding car.”
As the months went by with no games, Willy and Pete found themselves with more free time than either had experienced in years, and they both put it to good use.
“I kept up with all of the pandemic news, especially anything sports-related. I kept myself up-to-date on all of the NHL’s latest moves in order to be prepared for an eventual return to the broadcast booth,” says Pete. “On a personal note, I took advantage of the downtime to work out more and to do take care of a few things around the house.”
“Professionally, I stayed busy with my sports talk radio program. Although gathering content was challenging, we were able to do some of the best interviews we’ve ever done. We suddenly had access to major sports celebrities who were happy to talk with us, especially since the sports shutdowns had left them with no place to go and nothing else to do,” says Willy. “Personally, I was able to take full advantage of spending time with my family.
Over the summer, the NHL announced that the league would resume play on August 1 using a “bubble” concept, in which the top 24 teams, including the Predators, would compete in playoff games held in Toronto and Edmonton. During the playoffs, all players, coaches and their staffs would be isolated in the bubble cities until their individual teams were defeated or the Stanley Cup champion was crowned.
“The NHL’s bubble plan was tremendously detailed,” says Willy. “It was taxing for the teams who were there for the length of it, but it was a tremendous accomplishment to be able to complete the season and crown a champion. It took an incredible investment by everyone involved.”
While the NHL’s bubble concept proved to be a success, it created major challenges for sports media personnel, who had to cover the games remotely.
“In all of my years in sportscasting, I have never had to do play-by-play for games that I could not physically be at,” says Pete. “However, while it was different, the broadcast infrastructure could not have been better. It was extremely well thought-out and executed to perfection.”
“All in all, I think that we adapted well to the remote broadcasts,” says Willy. “The NHL did a great job to create the best game atmosphere possible.”
As we move into the new year, there is an increasing sense that things will eventually return to normal, including the onset of the 2021 NHL season. While timing for hockey’s return is uncertain, the duo is confident that they will soon be covering Predators’ games in person again.
“I am looking forward to once again having regular interaction with players and coaches,” says Pete. “I have had enough Zoom calls to last me a lifetime.”
“I can’t wait to be in a packed arena again, hearing the roar of the crowd and watching people exchange hugs and high fives when the Predators score,” adds Willy.
And Willy, neither can the fans.