An NHLer for a Day, Old School Style

Posted January 10, 2012

The author, cutting to the net for a scoring opportunity.

Old time hockey, just like Eddie Shore…

The D.C. region is becoming a hotbed of national hockey commercials, thanks to a strong local fanbase and the efforts of Carlyn Davis Casting, which has become the go-to agency for hockey-related shoots, particularly involving either GEICO and/or the Washington Capitals.

A few months ago a casting call circulated online among various blogs and on Facebook, looking for skaters to play 1930s-era hockey players for a commercial.  Auditions, and the commercial shoot itself, were on a weekday, perfect for a graduate student/rink rat/writer for District Sports Page, and I submitted my info (fibbing a bit on height, weight, and shoe size, just like any good professional athlete).  I’d previously been an extra in another commercial cast by Carlyn Davis, and they scheduled me for an audition on the afternoon of my birthday, in October.

The casting agency had scheduled two dozen auditions for ten spots, so the odds were good, but I recognized the names of a few of the better players at the Gardens Ice House at Laurel, where the auditions and shoot took place, when I took a peek at the other names on the audition list.  The agency wanted us to audition wearing the actual vintage ice skates that were going to be used in the commercial.  If you ever took the technology that goes into modern ice skates for granted, thank your lucky stars you don’t have to skate in soft leather boots with no ankle support and blades that slip sideways at the slightest turn.  At the audition I stepped on the ice, did one lap around the rink, then hopped off and wound half a roll of hockey tape around my ankle.

Not very comfortable

Seriously, look how much those leather things bend at the ankle without any type of support.

Once properly taped up, the first task was skating two laps around the rink with a partner, passing a puck back and forth, while being video-taped.  I was paired with a well-meaning guy in his 30s who clearly did not meet the requirement of “excellent skating skills and hockey experience,” even taking into account the ridiculousness of the skates.  After the laps we squared off in front of the camera in an old-timey fight, putting our dukes up and circling around.  My opponent got a bit overzealous and caught me in the mouth with a glancing punch, giving me a split lip which undoubtedly added to my veracity as a hockey player.  We were then asked to skate another two laps with the puck on our own, cranking a slap shot into the net at the end of each.  That task accomplished (with aplomb, in my own estimation), I left the rink with a great birthday story.

A couple weeks later I got a call from Suzanne from the casting agency saying that I’d been cast, and asking about availability in mid-November.  She was purposefully vague about the plot of the commercial, but a quick glance at the Caps schedule showed a West Coast road trip during the shoot, so no repeat of Jerry’s or Mike’s experiences with the Ovechtrick shoot.

A couple weeks before the shoot there was a wardrobe fitting for our uniforms.  The designs were vintage-inspired designs, not actual teams.  My team, the maroon-and-cream L’s, was pretty close to the Montreal Maroons, while I still have no idea what the yellow-and-green Q’s are based on.  I was given #50, putting me in great company with Cody Eakin, Antoine Vermette, and Brian Willsie, among others.

Jerseys fitted and multiple rolls of tape in hand, I showed up to the Gardens for our call time at 4:45 am. Yikes. As it turned out, of the ten hockey players and one ref I lived the closest to the rink and was the last one there, rolling up a few minutes late.  After working as an extra in the 2010 shoot and waiting in the lobby watching the “stars” of the shoot walk in and go right to wardrobe, it was an experience to waltz right in while dozens of extras cooled their heels.

A face only a mother could love

Don't tell me you wouldn't believe this is an actual photo from the Prohibition era.

Wardrobe consisted of an hour of trial and error to get all the right gear and correctly fitted while maintaining the classic look the director wanted.  Shoulder pads came and went, as did the neck of our undershirts, and players swapped ill-fitting skates and stiff leather gloves to find the right fit.  Keeping hockey socks from falling down without a jock or garter is pretty damn tough, especially without shin pads (which I had to take off once the shoot started because they made my legs look “too chunky”).  The day before the shoot I bought three rolls of hockey tape, and used up two of them over the course of the day trying to keep my ankles from breaking and my socks from falling down.  On the former I was successful; on the latter, not so much…

After wardrobe was makeup, which was mostly about getting the ’30s hairstyles right.  The clear winner in that venue was a guy named Neil, who got a sweet mustache to go along with his greased up hair.

As each hockey player wrapped up in makeup we got to hop on the ice and get used to the skates, as well as check out the set.  A corner of the rink was set up like an old hockey barn, with an insane—and absolutely true to life—setup of wood boards and stanchions with chicken wire, running from the goal line on one side to the blue line on the other.  All of the action took place in about a 30’ by 40’ space in the offensive zone, not a lot of room for nine skaters, a referee, and a goalie and net.

The setup for the players was thankfully simple, an instruction to play pass around a puck at 50% game speed.  We started with three players a side while the crew figured out the framing and angles, and eventually the rest of the players slipped in to make it a 5-on-4 situation.  Competitive hockey players don’t do well at half speed and play ramped up, even taking some low shots on the lightly-padded, mask-less goaltender, Tom.  It was more of the same once the real shooting started, with the L’s drawing up some passing plays that Eddie Shore could only dream about.

Curious how a rink using these chaps to resurface the ice would need a Zamboni-sized door...

Initially the crew shot the commercial from the side, and one player from the Q’s was pulled over and instructed to just skate back and forth in front of the camera.  Of course, after joking with him about the additional exercise, I was asked to do the same in the opposite direction.  It was the hardest skating I’d done in months.  After doing suicides in front of the camera for a few takes, losing my socks once [more foreshadowing] and almost hitting the camera another time, they shifted the camera to an aerial shot over the net and filmed more unscripted game action that didn’t make it into the finished product.

Between the free skate, the practice game situation, and two different angles of actual shooting, the eleven of us were on the ice for about three hours, from 6:00 to 9:00 am.  That was the end of my day in front of the camera, although I wouldn’t know it for a few more hours.  The next shot was the hockey fight between Neil and Matt.  Initially the other players skated along the boards behind the fighters, cheering them on, but we stopped that after the first take.  Filming for that four-second clip probably took an hour.  Neil was convincing with his glower and stance, while Matt could not stop laughing.  It didn’t help that Neil was talking trash the whole time too.  Once the decision was made to not use the other skaters in the shot, we wandered over to chat with a crew member who also played hockey at Laurel, and peek at the storyboard for the whole commercial (which was a pretty clear indicator that we weren’t going to be shooting anything else the rest of the day).

Although I was a little sleep deprived, it was great to watch the other on-ice portion of the commercial get filmed, the “belly sliders,” as they were referred to in the script.  These guys were out on the ice wearing almost nothing for at least an hour before our lunch break and at least an hour after, for at least two dozen takes.  Most of the time they were diving onto plastic pads (which couldn’t have been that warm anyway), but the last couple takes were for the shot of them flat on the ice.  If anyone earned their paycheck that day, it was those three.

Look at that calf definition!

A kick save, and an equipment malfunction.

Around 1 p.m. the “belly slider” takes finished filming and the director called everyone back together on the ice for a crew photo and a cast photo.  A couple of the players stuck around to film another shot that wasn’t used, fading from old-timey to modern players.  For the rest of us, the afternoon was over.  We returned to the locker room, took off our equipment and hung up our uniforms, even though everyone really wanted to keep them (what is GEICO ever going to do with cloth jerseys of fake teams fitted precisely to ten disparately-sized men?), and headed home.  Even with the inside information on the script and the shoot we still had to wait until the commercial aired to see the finished product (and the extent to which each of us appeared in it).

It was a blast to sit around waiting for the NBC broadcast to start, and pay close attention to the commercials for once.  When the commercial finally aired I played it back a dozen times trying to figure out who was visible and which shots they used.  You see my back twice, skating from the right point to the right post. If you stop admiring the beautiful kick save Tom makes in the second shot, you’ll see that the production company did, in fact, use the take in which my sock fell down.  There I am, in all my barelegged glory, gilding with one foot off the ice out of the frame so I could get the sock taped back up.

Luckily, the mishap is only visible if you’re really looking for it (which all of you will do from now on) and the commercial is a great memory, at least until it’s inevitably played to death on television a few months from now.  GEICO just inked a deal to be an official sponsor of the NHL for another three years, so if you missed your chance this go round, just keep your eyes peeled, your next chance may be just around the corner.

Abram Fox is a managing editor for District Sports Page and a writer for DC Sports Box, when he’s not working on his dissertation or filling bit roles in hockey commercial shoots.