Vancouver Canucks defenceman Chris Tanev (8) scores the game-winning goal against Calgary Flames goalie Brian Elliott on Feb. 18.
My wife thinks I look like a fool.
Sadly, this is nothing new. I’m the guy who shovels snow in my shorts, who has mustard stains on every dress shirt. But on this particular Saturday night, my foolishness is not because I’ve swapped my jeans for pyjama pants, while keeping on the sweater I had been wearing all day. No, it’s because of what’s on my face.
Sportsnet has teamed with Molson Canadian and given away 350,000 pairs of cardboard VR glasses inside cases of beer. Under the working theory that nothing bad has ever come out of a case of beer, I’ve decided to give the new technology a try.
And so here I am, clutching a cardboard box to my face as I bounce my head around like a real-life Bobblehead doll, all while trying not to fall off the couch. I can hear my wife laughing in the background. But I don’t care. From my vantage point, I feel like the smartest person inside Vancouver’s Rogers Arena for a hockey game between the Canucks and Flames.
To my left and to my right are fans who spent close to $400 per ticket to sit in the first row, right behind the goalie. But I got in for free — and the view is breathtaking, if a bit nauseating.
Vancouver Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller's mask is knocked off by a shot from the Calgary Flames on Feb. 18.
By sliding my iPhone inside a pair of virtual reality glasses, the in-arena cameras become my eyes. They go wherever I look. When a defenceman passes the puck up to a forward, I follow the play by moving my head from left to right, just like I was in the arena. There is no play-by-play commentary, no graphics displaying the score. If I want to know how much time is remaining in the period, I have to tilt my head skyward towards the scoreboard. With my headphones plugged in, I become lost in the action.
Up close, hockey is a dizzying game. Everything moves at a breakneck speed. Even the simplest plays are filled with suspense. On a routine dump-in, goaltender Ryan Miller shouts “Wheel! Wheel! Wheel!” at defenceman Chris Tanev, who has a forechecker on his back. He’s going to get caught, I think, and I brace myself for the impending contact.
When I take off the glasses, my wife is laughing again.
Hockey has had a somewhat complicated relationship with technology. Remember the glowing puck that Fox Sports introduced in the late 1990s? You might wish you didn’t. How about the 3D games that were supposed to make it feel like the players were skating in your family room? Yeah, that never really worked.
But not everything has been a failure. The ref cam has given viewers a unique window into the on-ice experience, enhancing replays and translating just how skilled players are to the hockey fan at home. With the advent of HD and now 4K televisions, there are even fewer reasons to actually buy a ticket to the game.
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The VR experience is another keyhole into previously uncharted territory. Using three cameras — one at centre ice and one behind each net — the technology gives viewers a 360-degree look from a unique vantage point.
“We’re giving another opportunity for a person who cannot attend the game to feel like they’re at the game,” Rob Corte, vice-president of Sportsnet and NHL production, told me. “When you take part in this experience, you’ll be able to take in the sights and the sounds like you’re in the arena.
“We’re always looking for different ways and things to present to the consumer. In the end, the consumer makes the decision. With 3D, everyone was excited about it, but what we found was it wasn’t for everybody. For live-sporting broadcasts, it just didn’t work and the general population wasn’t too enthusiastic about it.”
Rogers, which broadcasted the Canucks-Flames game on Saturday night in virtual reality, will have five more VR broadcasts this season. It’s a bit gimmicky. I cannot imagine watching a game like this with a group of people — much less by myself.
Staring at a phone that is inches away from your face is tough on the eyes. During whistles, I needed to put the VR glasses down and close my eyes.
Vancouver Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher (bottom) collides with Calgary Flames goalie Brian Elliott on Feb. 18.
And while it looks like you’re actually at the game, some things are obviously missing. You are essentially a fly on the wall. You can’t virtually high five the fans next to you after a goal or even talk to the people around you. Yelling at the ref is just plain weird. And good luck virtually ordering a beer (I tried. My wife told me to get off my lazy butt and grab one myself).
“You’re going to have some things that hit and some things that don’t, but we’re going to continue to push,” said Corte, who admitted that Rogers probably doesn’t need to rely on gimmicks such as VR broadcasts as much as they did a year ago when no Canadian teams qualified for the playoffs.
“We would try and progress anyway, but you’re right. The success of the teams has a lot to do with the success and the number of viewers that you get.”
I can hear my wife laughing in the background, but I don’t care how I must look right now. All I can concentrate on is that Calgary’s Marc Giordano just tied the game with 5.6 seconds remaining in the third period on a shot that came flying straight at me out of nowhere.
Now it’s overtime and even though my eyes are dry, I can’t risk blinking.