ESPN has a pretty good new toy for hockey coverage. Makes me think someone ought to start a major hockey league around here so it can get a little more use.
This week the DasherCam is getting its maiden run during the Frozen Four, college hockey's version of the Final Four. Denver, the defending champion, routed Colorado College 6-2 and North Dakota beat Minnesota 4-2 in Thursday's semifinals in Columbus, Ohio. The Championship Game is Saturday night at 7 p.m. EDT on ESPN.
DasherCam is a robotic, swiveling camera mounted on a dolly atop the glass on the near-side boards -- also known, and this is one of my favorite words in sports, as dasher boards or dashers. It whizzes back and forth between the face-off circles and can follow along as players rush through the neutral zone. It's similar to that camera NBC uses to zoom along the track with sprinters during the Olympics.
It's cool, in a dizzying sort of way. It's certainly an improvement on the last version of DasherCam, which offered an unrelenting view of Blitzen.
"DasherCam will capture the speed of the players as they accelerate through the neutral zone, providing viewers an enhanced feel for the quickness of the game and better perspective on how plays develop," ESPN said in a press release last month.
It does capture that speed, and in fact enhances it. When you're sitting rinkside, you can see how fast top-flight hockey players are moving, but they're zipping past as you sit there. With DasherCam you're moving with them, so you can really feel it. The downside, for me at least, is that the roller-coaster speed produces an effect of "Whoa-oh-oh, what's happening?"
And it's actually a worse perspective on how plays develop than that old standby that's the sworn enemy of all people in television sports production, the camera at the center of play, halfway up the stands. Speed, yes. Close to the action? Check. But the angle is too low to get much perspective on the developing play.
DasherCam's angle offers good perspective in real life. Looking just over the top of the glass to see the net puts you, what, half a dozen rows up from the ice? So it may be that the images work better on high-definition TV. I wouldn't know -- we still use those hand-crank telephones around here -- but if you saw Thursday's games on HDTV, drop me a line.
But one thing DasherCam does brilliantly is solve that problem of not being able to see action along the near-side boards. The traditional puzzle for TV has been that when players are mucking around on the near side, there have been only two ways to show what's going on, both of them bad.
One option has been to switch to a camera on the other side of the ice. But that changes the axis for the viewer. The team going left to right is suddenly going right to left, just for this shot, and it's confusing. The other option is a camera looking straight down the boards from the corner, which only works if the action happens to be close to that corner.
The usual solution is Option C, which is to stay with the center-ice camera, offering a view of the top half of a bunch of guys who are looking down at their feet, where something is happening out of sight.
But DasherCam can settle in a few feet away from the scrum and swivel to look down on it, without presenting a confusing angle. It's a major innovation in hockey coverage. It's not as though scrums along the near-side boards are a huge part of hockey, but they're enough of the game that this has been a real problem, and DasherCam solves it.
DasherCam is one of those things, like the camera on a wire above a football field or the overhead, end-zone camera in basketball, that works a lot better for replays than in covering live action, except for those near-side battles.
As for the hockey, well, it's just impossible to watch college hockey as an NHL fan -- remember the NHL? -- and not say, somewhere around the 20th end-to-end rush of any given period, "Why can't the NHL just eliminate the damn two-line pass?"
That single rule change opens up the game to a ridiculous degree. The neutral-zone trap, the bane of hockey excitement everywhere, can still be effective, but at least it's a fair fight.
College hockey isn't without problems of its own, most notably the way-too-tight officiating that creates a constant parade to the penalty box for the slightest of real or imagined offenses.
Denver and Colorado College combined for 24 penalties, North Dakota and Minnesota for 13, and only two of the 14 goals scored all day were even-stength. North Dakota got a short-handed goal, and the rest, including all eight in the Denver-C.C. game, were on the power play.
Still, the action is good, the atmosphere intense, and I don't know how you can fail to enjoy a sport that features cheerleaders on ice skates.
It's fun to watch hockey again. Thursday's games were the first I've watched in almost a year except for a few of those World Cup games in September, which didn't interest me, or you either, judging from the ratings. It's good to see Barry Melrose again, with his sloppy slicked-back hair and his ridiculous pin-striped -- no, candy-striped -- zoot suit. I mean that as a compliment, of course.
Now if only someone would start a professional major league, this sport might really go places.
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