Setting the Stage for the NHL’s Season-Saving Bubble

By Patrick Bohn ’05, September 4, 2021
Steve Mayer ’84 helped create a captivating return to hockey

When the coronavirus pandemic first swept the world, Steve Mayer ’84, senior executive vice president and chief content officer for the National Hockey League (NHL), had to figure out a way to keep fans engaged during a time of uncertainty. 

The NHL paused its season on March 12, 2020, with 189 games remaining, including the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

“We thought the stoppage was going to last a week or two,” he said. “Then, after a few weeks passed and we realized the stoppage was going to last a lot longer, we started asking different questions. ‘Can we come back? What’s it going to look like? How can we protect our players, fans, and staff? ’ The world had never seen anything like this.” 

Mayer’s first order of business was to get creation of the league’s content up and running again. 

“We wanted to keep our fans informed and engaged,” he said. “To do that, we gave producers and editors equipment for their homes and gave them the ability to access the league’s video content remotely. We also worked with players to send out messaging encouraging mask wearing and hand washing.” 

With content hitting homes again, the next, more arduous task was at hand: helping the league’s return-to-play initiative be a success. 

“We weren’t in a rush. We wanted to come back in the safest, healthiest way,” Mayer said. “Everything we did was based on that. We put in some very stringent protocols to ensure the safest scenario possible.” 

That meant the creation of two “hub” cities, Edmonton and Toronto, to host an expanded 24-team playoffs. Once the cities were secured—as well as the arenas where the games would be played and the hotels where coaches, players, and staff would be housed— Mayer was able to focus on his next task: making the games an event without any fans. As a large part of his job is overseeing the league’s event department, Mayer was able to quickly come up with solutions. 

“​​On a normal day, producing the Stanley Cup finals is an accomplishment, and in these circumstances, it was an achievement.” 

Steve Mayer ’84

“I spent a lot of time making sure that we were giving fans at home the ultimate television experience,” he said. “We’d observed what some other professional leagues had done, and we saw what was working and what wasn’t.” 

Mayer’s team brought in the brightest LED screens they could find and hired Los Angeles’s most popular lighting technician to create an in-arena atmosphere that could be appreciated in a living room thousands of miles away. 

There were challenges, of course. The bubble the NHL created for its personnel meant that players, coaches, and staff had to be quarantined for the duration of the playoffs. For Mayer and others tasked with producing the games, that meant they were going to spend nearly three months without seeing their families. 

Mayer’s behind-the-scenes work for the NHL was in sharp contrast to what he was focused on as a student at IC. But he credits his time on South Hill with developing his versatility. 

“I worked for both VIC and WICB, did the play-by-play for athletic contests, and hosted The Gridiron Report for ICTV,” he said. “But what was great about the hands-on experience at Ithaca was that you were expected to do a little bit of everything. I was running cameras and editing footage, and I got a general knowledge that’s helped me during my career.” 

On September 28, 2020, when the Tampa Bay Lightning lifted the Stanley Cup, Mayer’s time in the bubble came to a close. In total, the league played 75 games after pausing the season. 

“On a normal day, producing the Stanley Cup finals is an accomplishment, and in these circumstances, it was an achievement,” he said. “We all knew what we were doing was something we’d never do again.”