It’s opening night of the Winnipeg Jets season. The Calgary Flames are in town at Bell MTS Place. The game is tight. Winnipeg fights back from a two-goal deficit to knot it up at three. Overtime beckons, and Priya Plested takes a deep breath.
She’s been getting ready for this game, and this season, for weeks. Training. Watching game film from last season. Honing her reaction time. Memorizing 58 buttons on a light-up keyboard.
She has one job: make the game sound like the arena isn’t empty, filling it with the noises that 15,000 screaming fans would normally make when their team scores, fights, hip checks, wins or loses. They call her the "sweetener," and she takes the gig seriously.
"I get to speak for tens of thousands of fans at home," she says, adding that a picture of local sports enthusiast Dancing Gabe Langlois is up in the control room to remind her of that. "I have to try to make it as real as possible."
The game is real, but the situation is surreal. As the pandemic disrupts global experiences, professional sports have also been forced to adapt. One key change: the near-total removal of the fan — that cheering, heckling, beer-drinking, sign-holding, Jumbotron-hogging, aisle-dancing, ref-booing, player-worshipping entity — from the building.
Last season, both the NHL and NBA played out their postseasons in "bubble" scenarios, enclosing league play to single locations with no fans watching in order to keep the COVID-19 virus sidelined.
This year, both leagues have attempted to play out their regular seasons in all of their arenas to varying degrees of success, but only a select few are allowing in-person fan attendance.
In once-madhouse arenas, that’s created a very loud concern over silence, and how to ensure sports hit the ear right, even if the eye test reveals seats covered with tarps bedecked with corporate logos.
For Bell MTS Place — which at roughly 15,000 seats is the smallest arena in the NHL but also consistently hyped as one of its loudest — the prospect of a quiet building was an especially sour one. So, like every other team that’s barred fans from the building, a sweetener was added.
"There are times where if you turn away, you might not know the difference, based on the sound," says Kyle Balharry, the senior director of game production for ownership group True North. "That’s a credit to Priya. She has to watch the game and be excited like the fans are excited. It goes from quiet to loud to louder to SCORES.
"Her goal isn’t just to be a hockey crowd, but a Winnipeg hockey crowd," he says. Sounds easy, maybe. But there’s a real art to it.
"I only get one moment and one chance," Plested says. One opportunity to react properly and shape the fan experience during the strangest season in modern NHL history.
Plested is just 25, but has already made it to the NHL.
Originally from Kamloops, B.C., seeing the hometown Western Hockey League team, the Blazers, when she was five won her over. Her very first game featured a Teddy Bear Toss. That, combined with the on-ice action, was enough to convert her to a lifelong fan.
She went to Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers University, studying business administration, but knew she wanted to work in hockey. In 2013, she joined the Blazers’ promotional team. For five years, she volunteered at games and community events, working in areas such as game production and fan experience. In 2016, Kamloops hosted the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Women’s World Championship, and Plested ran game-day production. That led to a business operations internship with the WHL the next year, working alongside the league’s marketing department in Calgary.
Plested graduated in 2018, after which she landed a job as the WHL Kootenay Ice’s manager of business operations and fan experience. When the team moved to Winnipeg the next year, she came with it. And when a job with the Jets was posted, she jumped. She worked with the team on game production for its pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, and this season, Balharry was sure she’d be a perfect fit for the sweetener job.
Before the season began, the NHL informed teams that pumping in crowd noise would be beneficial to the fan experience. The league enlisted sound professionals Firehouse Productions, which helped craft synthetic crowd noise for video games such as FIFA Soccer, to take care of that issue.
Plested had a two-day training session with the company to learn the ins and outs of its 58 colour-coded squares.
There are eight "excitement" buttons, in green, that Plested calls the "ooohs"; eight "disappointment" buttons in red; three "go, Jets, go" chants; one "True North" chant; five "anticipation" sounds; one drum beat; three fight noises; five goal noises, and more.
To practise, Plested would watch games on mute, reacting to the on-ice action with 100 per cent focus. She doesn’t have any labels on the machine, because she doesn’t need them. She’s memorized the whole thing, and the wide gamut of noises it makes.
University of Toronto sport and exercise psychology professor Catherine Sabiston says noise plays a role in professional sports, impacting referee bias and providing immediate feedback to players and coaches, plus building a sense of community.
Artificial noise is an attempt to retain some of the sensory experience of pre-pandemic sporting events, she says, but it’s still an imitation of the "real" thing.
"What we’re missing is the true emotional impact of fan noise," she says. "But I’d also say we’re missing the spontaneity," which is hard to manufacture from a pre-selected crop of noises, which are a mix of real and synthesized sounds that come from other arenas and software, not from Bell MTS Place.
It’s true: the spur-of-the-moment cheers — shouting one player’s name, an improvised chant — are part of the sports experience. There’s no button on Plested’s keyboard that can mimic the exact thought process that’s behind 15,000 fans creating a new tradition, such as shouting "True North" during the national anthem, in real time.
But Sabiston says the noise makes sense from a viewing perspective, even if research isn’t yet conclusive on whether the synthetic noise makes much of a difference on game outcome. "Sweetener" as a title makes sense, too.
"I think the term means to add a little something extra. A little bit of flavour and a little bit of oomph," she says. An artificial sweetener to an already addictive game.
As the season’s gone on, Plested’s gotten used to the pressure. But on opening night, she was still a rookie getting her legs under her. And overtime? That’s one thing she admits she hadn’t prepared for.
Against the Flames, it was trial by fire.
The extra period is tense. Both teams are playing with the energy of a new season under their skates. It’s anyone’s game. And then Patrik Laine gets the puck at the Jets’ blue line. Plested clicks an "anticipation" button.
Laine darts up past the Calgary bench, past centre ice, past the stoic gaze of Jets coach Paul Maurice, and finds himself in a two-on-one situation with defenceman Neal Pionk flanking him. The "crowd" is on the edge of her seat. Laine decides to keep the puck and snipes a shot past Calgary goalie Jacob Markstrom.
Close your eyes. It sounds like a Jets crowd. Plested has done her job.
It turned out the overtime winner was Laine’s last goal as a Winnipeg Jet (he was traded to Columbus soon after), and Plested was the only "fan" in the arena to cheer for it, channelling the feeling of 15,000 seats and thousands more armchairs at home with the click of a few buttons.
The next day, she watched the game again, listening closely for any mistakes.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.