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Disney Channel

The NHL's never-ending quest to reach new viewers has plenty of misses on its scoresheet. Remember Stan Lee's Guardian Project? No, of course you don't, because it was incredibly stupid and they gave up on promoting it almost immediately. So we already know the league could do a lot worse than just stealing an idea that works from the NFL, with its occasional mixed-reality Nickelodeon simulcast. Thus, on Tuesday night we got Capitals-Rangers, live but animated. It was something of a trip.

You can read about how it came to be, but to this adult viewer with no knowledge of Big City Greens, it was more fun to go into it cold, to not know the lore that might explain why the linesmen were chickens or why there was a large man named Vasquez standing watch over the penalty box or who the cartoon children were that Vincent Trocheck and Evgeny Kuznetsov had been benched for (with the announcers never breaking kayfabe):

The whole thing felt like a mildly pleasant fever dream, but the player- and puck-tracking technology involved was legitimately impressive, and the animation translated well to a sport where the ice is big and the puck is small and everything moves so fast that the biggest barrier to entry for the casual fan might be "understanding what's going on." The blocky player avatars, and shot and goal animations, and the general slowness of the cartoon action all made it accessible in a way the game is often not. The animated rule breakdowns also made clear who the intended audience was, though I respect them for not even attempting to explain goalie interference, because not even the NHL understands that.

The jankiness of the broadcast was part of the charm—the post-goal hugs that translate as a bunch of players clipping into each other; "the fans are on their feet" as seven cartoon blobs look perplexed; the fights that are just confusing; the goals that outright glitch—but it's hard not to dream about what this tech could someday mean to a sport where it currently takes 10 damn minutes to determine if a puck crossed the goal line. Imagine knowing as quickly as they do in soccer if a play was offside. Imagine watching a simplified but fully animated gamecast in your scores app. Imagine replacing Wes McCauley with a chicken in playoff OT. It's almost enough to forgive the oozing corporate synergy.

That's all for the future, though. In the now, this broadcast livened up an otherwise skippable mid-March game featuring a non-contender missing its biggest star. It wasn't entirely for me—I switched to the regular broadcast in the second period—but it had an obvious appeal to those it was for, and succeeded on those terms.

Oh, and the Rangers won 5-3. Cricket Green had a pair of assists, and Gramma was named third star of the game with 28 saves.

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