How the NHL Has Turned the Stanley Cup Finals Into a Must-Watch Entertainment Experience

“We’re doing it fast and furious but that’s the pace of hockey,” Steve Mayer, the league’s chief content officer and executive VP of events and entertainment, tells TheWrap

Last Updated: June 8, 2018 @ 7:27 AM

If you happened to be walking past the Fountains at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon, you’ll have spotted an unusual sight even for Sin City — rockers Panic! at the Disco playing live on a floating stage in the middle of the water.

The surprise show was the latest performance during the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals that have been worthy of a top music festival lineup like Coachella or Lollapalooza.

Add in the glitz of Vegas-style opening shows, Grammy-winning national anthem singers and celebrity announcers Michael Buffer and Pat Sajak — it’s become clear that not all the action during the NHL championship series happens on the ice, and that doesn’t factor in the end-to-end between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights.

“Making each of these events into a social experience has been our goal — to bring people together for the good of hockey while having fun,” Steve Mayer, chief content officer and executive vice president of events and entertainment at the NHL, told TheWrap.

“What we’re finding is that artists, musicians and celebrities love the sport and just want to be around it, so the reaction has just been fantastic,” added Mayer, who joined the league in 2015 after spending 20 years at IMG Productions.

Las Vegas-natives Panic! at the Disco became the latest Grammy-winners to give a special performance to fans before Thursday’s Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The anticipation was so high for the hometown band that the location of the pop-up event was kept a secret up until the last minute, with details being released on the NHL’s social media pages, which is similar to Luke Bryan’s performance in Nashville last year.

Panic! followed Lil Jon, Sting, Shaggy and Fall Out Boy as major artists who put on free open-air shows in Vegas and D.C. before prior games.

“I just pinch myself because we’ve gotten so lucky with the artists as are so many other things going on at this time of year with festivals and tours,” Mayer said, “but we’ve managed to find performers who are as excited about this as we are and want to play.”

Unlike a Super Bowl halftime show that can be planned months or even years in advance, Mayer and his team had to act on the fly as the scheduling of the best-of-seven series is so last minute by nature. “We’re doing it fast and furious but that’s the pace of hockey,” he said.

2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Four

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All of the entertainment for the Finals has been planned since May 24, which was the day after the Capitals defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. “That was when I first started making phone calls and putting this together, as before that we didn’t know when, where or what teams,” Mayer explained. “Not being able to know where you’re going and when has been the challenge but has also been the best part. We’ve just haven’t stopped and have been able to come up with creative locations to do these events.

“I have no idea how we’ve done it! It’s no question that it has been a challenge, but we’ve had cooperation at every level from the league and both teams internally. Then you have the cities themselves opening up their arms. Not only financially but with personnel, we could never do what we did in Washington without the help of the police, the fire department and the mayor,” he said, referring to Fall Out Boy performing on the steps of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in D.C. on Monday.

“There are plenty of people who don’t have tickets but we’re giving them the opportunity to enjoy the Stanley Cup Finals even if they’re not inside the arena,” Mayer said. “That to me is the most important accomplishment.”

Vegas Golden Knights Drummers

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Meanwhile, inside the arenas, ticket-buyers have been rewarded with spectacular entertainment such as sword-wielding fights, neon drummers and Cirque du Soleil acrobats before the Golden Knights home games.

“From the NHL standpoint, we’re challenging our teams to be bigger, grander, better and raise the level of what they’ve been doing all season for the Finals,” Mayer said, such as having Michael Buffer and Pat Sajak announce games, or adding trumpets and choirs to the national anthem performances. “It is trying to amplify everything and raise the bar.”

As for having an expansion team in the Finals for the first time in history, the unexpected success of the Golden Knights hasn’t hurt momentum for the 2018 Stanley Cup race either.

“The phenomena of Vegas certainly doesn’t hurt, that is a story that will last a lifetime — whether they win or lose — they’ve had an incredible journey to get here and it’s wonderful to see the whole community behind them,” Mayer said. “Then to have them play Washington, a team who has never won with one of the greatest players [Alex Ovechkin] who has never won … this is storybook stuff,” he said.

Tune in for the next exciting episode of the Stanley Cup Finals on NBC Thursday at 5 p.m. PT for Game 5 from the T-Mobile Arena.