HbD Interviews: NHL Creatives on the Season’s Pause
The NHL (along with every other sports league and person in the world) are currently operating in very uncertain times, to say the least. With the rapid spread of COVID-19 and subsequent cancellation or postponement of every major event or gathering, there’s been a lot of excellent reporting on the downstream impacts to both the sports world and professional life across North America, yet not necessarily the intersection of those two.
The NHL pauses the 2019-20 season. pic.twitter.com/bCi776ZFqX— NHL (@NHL) March 12, 2020
There are a number of stories speculating on if and when the season will return, how the players will continue to stay in shape throughout this hiatus, and what the playoff structure would look like (if the season is salvageable at all), but what about the front office employees? Specifically, in the case of our story today, the teams’ creative staffs, whose daily routines of creating game day posters, lineup cards and arena graphics suddenly vanished?
We spoke with a handful of creatives from different NHL clubs to find out what work has been like for them since the NHL’s announcement to indefinitely pause the season, and what the outlook is for the rest of the 2019-20 season from a creative perspective.
- Chris LoBosco – Senior Designer, New York Islanders
- Matt McElroy – Graphic Designer, Vegas Golden Knights
- Brady Hackmeister – Art Director, Vegas Golden Knights
- Josh Dudych – Creative Director, Winnipeg Jets
- Mark Majewski – Creative Director, Boston Bruins
Quotes may have been edited for clarity and length
The Breaking News
Once the news broke that Rudy Gobert tested positive for Coronavirus and the NBA made the decision to postpone the rest of their games, the NHL quickly began discussions regarding their own season before deciding to follow suit. For some teams’ creatives, like Matt McElroy from the Vegas Golden Knights, the news came as a bit of a shock. “We were surprised. We had briefly heard about the NBA the night before and had been texting about it, but even after hearing what was going on in Italy and China I sort of just brushed it off thinking ‘this could never happen here.'”
Even with the situation escalating in North America, it didn’t feel certain that the season would be postponed all together. “I think when we saw sporting events start to compete without fans, we were cautious that something like this might happen,” shared Chris LoBosco from the New York Islanders. Added Josh Dudych from the Winnipeg Jets, “It’s difficult to describe exactly how I felt, as I was processing that info in real time.” But as the trickle down from the NBA to the NCAA and even smaller events unfolded, the pause felt more and more inevitable.
“The NBA set the precedent with the WHOA factor, and then once we started seeing NCAA basketball tournaments fall by the wayside left and right, it was inevitable,” shared Mark Majewski from the Boston Bruins. Dudych shared the same sentiment; “especially once local health officials in California were advising against public gatherings over a certain size (and well below the typical attendance of any given major league sport) it seemed to me that it would only be a matter of time.”
“It’s hard to say I was surprised or if I expected it,” added Majewski. “I did almost feel once everything started getting cancelled, it was the NHL’s duty to follow suit.”
A Change in Plans
In the fast-moving industry of sports and entertainment with immense advance planning and so many moving parts, doing a total pivot with your project pipeline and creative strategy with little to no notice can be quite disruptive (to say the least). Without the game day creative and regularly scheduled programming, we asked our contributors how the announcement and subsequent weeks impacted their work.
“It has become very read and react for our creative team,” LoBosco shared of the Islanders, as teams have shifted their strategy to try and find new ways to keep fans engaged and excited, even without an on-ice product. “Our typical day-to-day projects have turned into creating engaging content to help our fans stay entertained while we all go through this together,” shared Brady Hackmeister from the Golden Knights. “Last week, we did one of the custom wallpaper designs on Twitter, and we were amazed at the response from our followers. We had around 1,200 responses within the first hour, so that kept us all very busy for a good day or so.”
Is your phone due for a makeover?— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) March 20, 2020
We’ll be making custom locker stall wallpapers for the next hour! 🤳
Just reply to this tweet with your name (under 12 characters plz!), number, and home/away jersey pic.twitter.com/FTGkV6BtYy
The Bruins are taking a similar approach, doing their best to engage fans through social media. “A lot of the day-to-day brand-moving elements have been replaced with basic content that does the best to engage the fan base,” Majewski shared. “Those projects definitely can be fun and serve a strong purpose, but it’s not necessarily the biggest challenge for a design standpoint. We’re still able to do some of the fun projects like wallpapers and all that good stuff, and always looking to increase output where and when we can!”
It’s time for a special edition of #WallpaperWednesday, B’s fans!— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) March 25, 2020
Drop your name, number and home or away jersey choice in the replies for a chance at a customized #NHLBruins jersey Wal-Paper, presented by @Walmart. pic.twitter.com/es7tfW6gPg
The Jets too are getting creative with how they engage their fans on social media. “We’re trying to be nimble and creative by lending some added horsepower to our social channels and responding to the need for additional content to engage our fans with while everyone is largely sheltered in place at home,” shared Dudych. “We, along with a number of other teams, have begun to do ‘by request’ content – creating customized name and number cellphone wallpapers for #WallpaperWednesday on both the Jets and [Manitoba] Moose Twitter accounts, and this past Friday we tried out #FotoshopPhriday on Jets Twitter where fans could complete a simple Mad Libs-style request, and our design team would try to create the scene in Photoshop, in real time. In addition to those, we’re working on some do at home activities for kids, and a few other ideas coming down the pipe. “
🎶 It’s Phriday, Phriday, gotta get down on Phriday… 🎶— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) March 27, 2020
AND to celebrate, we’re launching #FotoshopPhriday!✨
Respond with the hashtag #FotoshopPhriday and how YOU choose to fill in the Mad Lib below & we’ll do our best to bring some of the ideas to life through Photoshop! 👇 pic.twitter.com/JuXMtysp7o
Many creative teams are also experiencing the frustration of campaigns being put on hold after months of hard work to develop and build them. Shared LoBosco, “being that a lot of our collateral is centered around ticket sales, most of our promotions were immediately put on hold. Ironically we had just launched our “Game ON!” marketing campaign which had to be taken off all collateral.” Majewski shared the same sentiment around the Bruins playoff creative. “We we’re just about full go with the Bruins 2020 Postseason campaign, and both myself and the creative team were very excited about it,” but both LoBosco and Majewski added that they’re respectively hoping the work can be salvaged either if the season resumes, or for a future season or campaign.
Preparing for the unknown
There’s been a lot written and speculated on league officials modeling and projecting out scenarios for a potential return this season, if at all possible, and what that would look like. Logistical nightmares of rescheduling the games themselves aside, that level of uncertainty creates a number of challenges for creative teams who need to prepare for any possible situation, particularly when the conditions are evolving at such a rapid pace.
“Obviously we want to be ready to roll if and when the season resumes, so we aren’t caught flat-footed. We’re at a point where we would be ready to go (with minor adjustments to dates/times) if we return to a modified regular season schedule,” shared Hackmeister, a sentiment also voiced by Dudych. “We’ve still worked to execute those [game-day] projects and have them ready once play resumes, but in some other cases those no longer were necessary. We’re working toward a resumption of hockey at some point – it’s not a question of if, rather than when.”
“Depending on if and when the season resumes and how many games we play, we can only prepare so much for the unknown,” added LoBosco, but while preparing for rescheduled games continues to be a focus, preparations have already begun on schedule for next season. “With the amount of unprecedented time we now have, our team is looking at projects we wouldn’t typically until the off season… If the league does resume and we have a shortened off season, we will have less time to look at the bigger projects.”
Dudych echoed the same sentiment when it comes to staying on schedule with 2020-21 planning. “The development timeline for us to be ready for next season is largely unchanged, and right where we’d be at normally at this time of year.” However the potential for the playoffs is still the big elephant in the room, especially for a team like the Jets who were on the bubble going into the pause. “The big unknown right now that we’re trying to be ready for is if an NHL playoff scenario were to happen this summer, what that might look like, and whether we’d be participating or not (we went into the pause in 9th in the West and only .001 off by Win Percentage), so depending on if there’s any sort of play-in scenario or whatnot, we need to have a playoff campaign ready to go.”
Connectivity and Creativity in Isolation
With most states and provinces now mandating that all non-essential businesses move to work from home, most creative teams around the league are adjusting to the ways of remote work. “It’s been an adjustment for sure. I personally prefer the social element of the office to thrive,” shared McElroy, however the team is Vegas has found ways to leverage technology and stay connected. “Brady [Hackmeister] and I text pretty constantly through the day, and our project management software is a great tool to stay connected within our own department and with other lines of business as well.” Added Hackmeister, “there’s definitely something about working together in the same room, but we’re still able to bounce ideas and designs off of each other.”
The team in Winnipeg has also leveraged technology to check in with each other while working remotely. “Our creative services team has scheduled daily ‘Social Well being’ video chats in the morning to start the day,” shared Dudych, adding that the maintaining the camaraderie and human elements is just as important as the work. “We have a very close knit team, and I wanted to provide the opportunity to keep connected despite being at home; to have a coffee together, check in on projects, etc. So far it’s worked pretty well. In addition to [Microsoft] Teams, we have a Slack channel with some of the other NHL creative teams that we keep connected with, and our projects are all managed through Asana.”
On Long Island, the team has been out of the office since the season went on hiatus but found ways to keep on task despite the disruption to their routine. “Once the season was suspended, our team was given the option to work from home, and as things progressed, we were instructed to not return to the office for the time being,” explained LoBosco. “Daily video meetings and constant contact have helped our team stay engaged, focused, and together. Working remotely has been interesting and allows for a certain level of comfort, but it’s important for us to remained focused on the task at hand.”
The routine disruption has also been an adjustment for Mark Majewski and the creative team in Boston. “For me, personally, it’s been a tough adjustment because I’m very routine-oriented, so I’ve been trying to figure out a new normal. You have to keep in mind that everyone’s daily routines and modes of communication are disrupted, so being in constant contact and always relaying information is as pertinent as it gets.”
Added Hackmeister of the family challenges working from home often brings, “the biggest struggle is to let my wife take care of our 7 month old son by herself during work hours!”
Keep on Keepin’ On
Despite all the disruptions to project pipelines and uncertainty around what the future holds, the workflow still never sleeps for creative teams around the league. Remarked McElroy, “Brady [Hackmeister] and I have talked about how surprised we are to see people on Twitter talking about all the practice they’re doing and the learning they’re going to have time for, because I’d say we’re still working full days.”
LoBosco added that this unprecedented time gives the team the opportunity to take a step back and look at broader projects that are often more difficult among the day to day work of the regular season. “We’re going through auditing several aspects of the visual identity that we feel could be improved, like e-mail marketing, web design, and social media that have been on our radar.”
Outside of work, there’s also been an opportunity for the teams’ creatives to work on personal projects and unwind a bit too. “In the evenings it’s been a good opportunity to dust off the PS4, play some guitar, finally get to watching all the buzzy shows on Netflix,” shared Dudych, “and now that spring has arrived here, get out for some socially distanced walks and reconnect with my neighborhood in Winnipeg.”
Added Majewski, “[I’m] trying to do some personal projects that just let me expand my creative skill set a bit. I haven’t been doing as much animation, solely because there hasn’t been a need, but maybe some sort of uniform review can get that back up and running.”
Not lost in all the madness of the sports world however is the perspective of what’s going on in the world around us. Shared LoBosco, “mostly we are focused on staying safe, wishing our friends, families, and others well-being and good health, as these things go beyond the game of hockey.” Echoed Majewski, “it’s been a challenge, overall… we all needed to pump the brakes, and we’re all going to come out stronger in this. A new norm will be created and we’ll all have to come to the conclusion that we’re all in this together!”
Special thanks to all who contributed to this piece for taking the time to share their perspectives.