Southport's Placey having a Devil of a time at MSG-Plus
Updated 12:11 pm, Friday, January 6, 2012
It's still dark on a chilly December morning when a Southport mother of two rolls out of bed.
It's 6 a.m., and like millions of other mothers across the northern states, she's got to drive to a hockey rink for a morning practice.
But this 45-year old hockey mom won't be carting a Mite to a rink in Bridgeport or a Pee Wee to practice in Shelton. She's not that kind of hockey mom.
In fact, Deb Placey is unique.
Placey is both the TV host and reporter for Devils broadcasts on MSG-Plus. Among the NHL's 30 local broadcast teams, she is the only woman to hold both jobs.
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The 16-year veteran of MSG Network is at all Devils games -- home and on the road -- hosting the pre- and post-game shows and intermission reports. It's a role Placey filled on New York Islanders broadcasts for a decade before switching to the Devils this season.
"With the Islanders we always had to feature the players because there was so much turnover," Placey said. "The Devils are much more established, with their history of championships.
"But I miss the Islanders, it was a great experience."
When not covering the Devils, Placey is the studio host for NHL Network's "NHL Live" and did reporting for the network leading up to Monday's outdoor Winter Classic in Philadelphia.
Deb Placey-- or Deb Kaufman as she was known on-air before 2c005 -- has been a recognizable face in New York sports for the better part of two decades.
She's lived in Southport for the last 14 years with her two daughters -- 14-year-old Madeline and 10-year-old Caroline (neither plays hockey) -- and husband, Ed, a producer at ESPN.
Placey says she loves her work and calls it rewarding. But when she allowed the Fairfield Citizen to shadow her on Dec. 20, it was quickly evident her days are long and both mentally and physically demanding.
It's Tuesday, Dec. 20, and the Devils are home tonight against their arch rivals, the New York Rangers.
Placey's day begins before sunrise with a 6 a.m. wake-up call. She's out the door by 7:45, allowing herself two hours to make it down I-95 over the George Washington Bridge to Newark.
"On good days I can make it in an hour and a half," she says.
Placey is familiar with pavement. For 10 years, she drove from Southport to Hempstead, N.Y., to cover the Islanders games, and this drive is similar.
At 10:30 a.m., she is inside the rink when the Devils take the ice for their morning skate. After the light, 30-minute workout, she and her cameraman join the throng of media in the Devils' dressing room.
She'd like to talk to the Devil's Patrik Elias about the new franchise record for goals he set a few nights earlier in Montreal. But he's sick at home and will miss tonight's game, so Placey talks about him and the record with forwards Zach Parise and Petr Sykora and goalie Martin Brodeur. Then she interviews four other players about tonight's first game against the Rangers.
One of the most critical parts of Placey's job is getting players to talk on camera. After Placey is finished with him, Parise says he appreciates the fans, and realizes he speaks to them through Placey.
"I love the area," he said. "The fans who come give us great support, and they're passionate about us."
Placey gets a five-minute, one-on-one interview with Devils first-year coach Peter DeBoer. She asks him about playing without Elias tonight and about DeBoer's first encounter in the Devils-Rangers rivalry.
DeBoer previously coached the Florida Panthers in a market that is luke-warm to hockey. After his interview with Placey, the coach says he likes the coverage in New Jersey but still is adjusting to the media's influence in the New York metro area.
"There's a lot more here," DeBoer said of the press. "With New York and New Jersey media, it's great, but it's been a learning experience for me."
Finished with this round of interviews, Placey returns to the ice where she takes in the Rangers' morning skate. When they finish about 11:15, she joins a dozen or so other reporters to talk with New York coach John Tortorella.
The Rangers are scheduled to play the Flyers Jan.. 2 in the outdoor Winter Classic at Philadelphia's Citizen's Bank Park. HBO recently has had virtually unlimited access to the team for its reality show "24/7: The Road to the Winter Classic."
So Placey asks Tortorella about HBO's presence in the locker room and the scrutiny's effect on his players.
"Debbie, I'm not going to answer those questions," Tortorella tells her.
Dealing with sources reluctant to talk about a subject is nothing new to her.
"I've known (Tortorella) a long time," Placey said later. "I always know I'm in trouble when he calls me `Debbie.'"
She interviews a few Rangers players, then she goes into the MSG truck with associate director Larry Gaines to break-down the footage.
At half-past noon, Placey leaves the Prudential Center. She's off until the group's production meeting at 4 p.m., so she's going to run errands.
Placey's passion for sports was born in the heartland. She grew up in St. Louis, where Cardinals' great Lou Brock was her first sports hero.
"Going to Cardinals games is where my love of sports began," she said.
The former high school cheerleader grew up playing tennis and golf. She continues to play competitive tennis during the summer at the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Westport.
"I play almost every day during the summer," she said.
Placey studied journalism at the University of Arizona, where a professor told her that sports was "an avenue for women."
"He said, `Whatever anyone asks you to do, do it. If they ask you to cover courts, do it. If they ask you to do sports, do it,'" she recalls.
That advice echoed more than a decade later when MSG in 2000 asked her to cover hockey.
"I didn't know much about hockey then," Placey said. "I just forge ahead and think about the decision later."
She met Ed Placey in the late `80s when she was a production assistant at ESPN and he was an assistant producer. Placey spent four years behind the scenes at ESPN gaining experience that would open doors to on-camera jobs elsewhere.
"I learned how to put a TV broadcast together," she said. "It's the backbone of what I do."
Contacts Pay Off
In going after on-camera jobs at TV stations, it helped to have nationally known ESPN figures as references.
"I had Chris Berman as one of my references," she said. "I'm pretty sure the station director just wanted to talk to him."
She landed a job as the sports anchor for a TV station in Marion, Ill. That was a springboard to similar posts in progressively larger markets -- Waterloo, Iowa; Providence and Miami -- spending about a year in each.
As Placey moved around the country for five years, she and Ed maintained a long-distance relationship. Ultimately she returned to Connecticut and a job with ESPN2, where she stayed until 1995 when MSG came calling.
She's been with MSG since.
Still, ESPN contacts continued to open doors -- including the one to her NHL Network job. Charles Copelin, NHL Network its president, was a production assistant with Placey at ESPN.
Placey has covered just about every major team in New York for MSG. She was a reporter for late-1990s Knicks, Yankees and Mets.
Although no other woman has a similar job in hockey, she has never considered her gender to be an advantage or disadvantage.
"It's never mattered," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm just another reporter."
Joining that hard work is an increased interest in young women in sports broadcasting.
"When I first started there were a few women in the industry," Placey said. "Now every young girl I talk to wants to be a sideline reporter."
Placey is also taken by their commitment to the craft.
"I'm thrilled to see that times have changed," she said. "I'm impressed to see women working so hard on nights and weekends and getting stories. It's hard work."
Placey's hard work has not escaped notice of her bosses at MSG. The network had to juggle its on-air hockey lines when Devils' play-by-play announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick left to go full-time with NBC.
Steve Cangialosi, who had been the broadcast host and intermission reporter, took Emrick's job. And MSG moved Placey from the Islanders to replace him on Devils' broadcasts.
"The transition has been seamless," Cangialosi said of Placey's move. "The toughest part about her job is to get people to open up on camera, and she does it."
Cangialosi also believes Placey's credentials -- including her NHL Network post and a stint as a studio host on the Versus network's NHL coverage -- cements Devils' fans trust in her.
"She's covered everything in New York," he said. "Her work with the NHL Network and Versus cuts against the cynicism every fan has when he or she sees a new face."
Hockey "Maven" Stan Fischler had a simpler synopsis.
"She's the consummate pro," he said. "There is no one more focused in the industry."
Placey is back at the Prudential Center about 3 p.m. even though the production meeting won't start for an hour.
She is part of a seven-member Devils broadcast team that also includes Cangialosi; color commentator Glenn "Chico" Resch, a former Devils' goalie; associate director Gaines; graphics director Jon Fast; director Tom Meberg and producer Roland Dratch.
Placey, Cangialosi and Resch are in the bowels of the Prudential Center and walk up to a door marked "Locker Room 1." They walk through the door and into MSG-Plus' make-shift studio and meeting room.
Fischler is entertaining the crew with jokes and stories as the meeting is about to begin.
Dratch directs the meeting as the group goes over the plan for the pre-game show and then for the game telecast. The mood is serious but light. Placey had planned to feature Elias in the pre-game show, but because he's ill, the focus is switched to the rivalry and the Rangers appearance on HBO's "24/7."
After the meeting, Placey commandeers the adjoining bathroom. She slaps a sign on the door -- handwritten on notebook paper -- that says "Deb is changing." Inside, she changes from her morning skate attire into a dark suit, does her hair and makeup and preps for the broadcast.
It's 5 p.m., and the pre-game show still is about 90 minutes away. Cangialosi arranges his game notes, Fischler writes for MSG's website.
Resch is mingling with the set-up crew, and he is asked about Placey's role with the broadcast team.
"She's very consistent," the 15-year color-commentator says. "She knows what her skills are, and she sticks with them."
Resch echoes Cangialosi's assessment that Placey has a knack for getting athletes to relax and be themselves on camera. "She disarms people," he said.
The Cardio Workout
At 5:50, Placey is in Locker Room 1 taping an interview with American Hockey League President and CEO David Andrews about the Devils' involvement in the AHL All-Star Game in Atlantic City. The segment aired on the team's Jan. 2 telecast. Andrews appeared comfortable as she prodded him on the event's non-traditional market.
At about 6 p.m., Placey makes her first of what that evening will be eight cardio workouts hurrying back and forth between the bottom of the arena and the MSG-Plus set in the arena's "Goal Bar" above.
From Locker Room 1, she hurries to a set of roped-off stairs, gets instant access from a security guard and races up three flights; she moves quickly among fans through the main concourse, then up another 10 or so stairs to the Goal Bar. In a roped-off area, is a set where the pre- and post-game shows and intermission reports are telecast.
In the Goal Bar, she goes over notes and does voice-overs for the pre-game show. At about 6:20 p.m., former Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko joins her. As the pre-game show starts, Daneyko is off-camera posing for pictures with fans as Placey reads the first segment, cutting to footage from the morning skate and going through the rivalry segment she pitched at the production meeting.
As the first audible "Let's Go Devils!" chant rings through the concourse, Daneyko joins her on the set. A pack of about 30 fans -- most of them Rangers partisans -- huddle around the edges of the closed-off set to take in the program.
After the pre-game show, Placey hurries down the stairs and sprints through the concourse, then descends the remaining three flights to Locker Room 1, where she prepares for her customary final report before throwing the telecast to Cangialosi and Resch.
But on his night, her race to get into place goes for naught. The national anthem runs long, and the director drops the segment.
Placey takes a short walk to her usual spot in the Zamboni well to watch the first period with the squeegee-toting and shovel-wielding ice-maintenance crew. Devils' center Travis Zajac tallies his first goal of the season, giving New Jersey a 1-0 lead and whipping the Devils fans into a frenzy.
When the period ends, Placey walks past the oncoming "Mites on Ice," cheerfully telling the little players to "have fun" in their five-minutes on the big stage between periods.
As the Devils head for their dressing room, she pulls Zajac aside, asking him about scoring his first goal after returning from a torn Achilles tendon. Then she speed-walks back up to the Goal Bar, where she and Daneyko analyze the first period and discuss the highlights.
Placey is back at ice level with the squeegee-and-shovel crew when the Rangers' Artem Anisimov ties the game at 1-1. When the horn ends the period, she hurries to catch Anisimov to talk about the goal before she rushes back up to the Goal Bar for the second intermission report.
In the third period, the Rangers take a 3-1 lead, then add an empty-netter for a 4-1 victory. It is 9:20 p.m.
Had the Devils won, Placey would have scurried onto the ice for an interview with the game's No. 1 star that would have been amplified for the fans to hear. But tonight, she rushes straight up to the Goal Bar for the post-game show.
During the show, a Rangers fan shouts up from the concourse "I love you Deb Kaufman!"
The telecast ends at 9:58 p.m. -- more than 14 hours after Placey left Southport that morning. She shows no signs of wear, even agreeing to pose for pictures with fans who have hung around in the bar.
"I'm exhausted," she merrily admits.
Placey drives back Southport, trying to get home in time to look in on her daughters and perhaps kiss them good night.
No Rest for the Weary
Placey has the same regimen for the Devils 41 home games. But New Jersey also plays 41 road games in places as far away as Edmonton, Vancouver, and Los Angeles.
For road games, she leaves Southport at 4 a.m. to catch the Devils' charter flight. Depending on the road trip, she might be gone for days.
On most nights she is not on the road and the Devils are off, Placey is on the set of NHL Live in the NHL Network's New York studios at the NHL Store at 47th Stree and 6th avenue from 10 a.m. until the show ends at 7 p.m. Those studios are moving to Stamford next season, so that commute will be shorter.
But she's been caught up in travel for the NHL Network, too. Her on-location work for its Winter Classic coverage produced a hectic four-day itinerary that spanned three-cities and two countries.
Placey began in Philadelphia on Dec. 30, returned to Newark for the Devils' 3 p.m. game the next day against the Pittsburgh Penguins, then took a train back to Philly for a live Winter Classic set-up report from Citizens Bank Park on New Years Day.
Then she flew to Ottawa for the Devils' Jan. 2 game against the Senators, missing the outdoor game entirely.
Ed is ESPN's senior coordinating producer for college football and he travels weekly for "Saturday Night Football on ABC." So the Placey's have a nanny who cares for Madeline and Caroline when both parents are on the road.
Both daughters are busy and athletic. Madeline has been riding at the Hunt Club for 11 years and is a competitive equestrian. Caroline is a budding gymnast at the G&C Academy at SportsPlex.
On days she does "NHL Live," Placey says, she has more time to be home with the girls. "I can be in the door by 9 to help them with their homework," Placey said.
In exchange for working almost every day between September and June, Placey gets the entire months of July and August off. Ed gets time off then as well, and Placey says the family relishes its time they spend at the beach at Southport Harbor. They picked Southport because of its central location between Deb's and Ed's jobs.
"Southport is the greatest," she said.
Placey loves the life she has and says she wants to continue to do as much as she can. But she is quick to credit her husband's support for making it possible.
She also allows that being a familiar face in one of the world's most competitive media markets takes some luck, too.
"I'm very fortunate to do what I do," Placey said. "To have staying power in New York is really incredible."