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  • The ping of a shot off the post. The sound of a puck bouncing off a goalie's pad. Skates cutting into a fresh sheet of ice. These are the unique sounds of the game of hockey.
By Alex Prewitt
October 26, 2017

Ksssh-ksssh-ksssh

Vladimir Tarasenko loves this sound the most. It brings him back home to Russia, where each winter morning he would climb down the school bus stairs and feel the frozen ground crunch beneath his boots, “because it was like minus-35 Celsius outside.” It also makes the St. Louis Blues sharpshooter think about skating onto a fresh sheet of ice, that moment when his blades first slice into the smoothed surface. He glides. He turns. He stops. The noise bounces into the rafters, echoes throughout the seats. “Alone, there’s no one else, and the building is empty too, so you can really hear it,” Tarasenko says.

Ksssh-ksssh-ksssh.

Find a rink. Any rink. Close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? The whummmp of bodies plastered against the boards. The thwwwack of pucks smacking the glass. The tap-tap-tap of sticks, the brrrh-brrrh-brrrh of goal horns, the ksssh-ksssh-ksssh of skate blades. The vibrant, violent, natural reverberations of hockey. “That’s what makes the game so cool,” says Coyotes winger Max Domi. “One of my favorites is when a guy rips a shot off the crossbar. It’s not even a clink. It’s like a tiiinnng.

Ask Elliott Koretz. He can explain better than most. As a sound designer on the 2004 film Miracle, Koretz helped oversee a massive operation geared towards capturing the score of the sport. He was raised in Boston during the heyday of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, skating on baseball diamonds that had been flooded by open fire hydrants, shoveling snow to save money for Bruins tickets. He sometimes watches games on television, but that never felt the same. “There’s nothing like being there,” he often tells friends now. “When you walk through those doors, you go down that aisle, and all of a sudden you’re enveloped in sound.”

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For Koretz and his colleagues on the production side, Miracle was a dream project. Foley artist John Sievert hails from Toronto and grew up cheering for Dave Keon at Maple Leaf Gardens. “You couldn’t have done that movie not knowing hockey,” he says. “And most of us were Canadian, so we all bonded.” Supervising sound editor Rob Nokes used to play roller hockey against Luc Robitaille along the Santa Monica beaches and once earned praise for his toughness from Sergei Federov after a charity game in Hollywood. When director Gavin O’Connor brought them all aboard, he told the crew that he wanted to make the most realistic-sounding sports movie ever. During the recording process, Nokes stuck to this guiding princple: “If Wayne Gretzky sees this, is he going to go, ‘That’s normal. That’s hockey’?”

It was an extremely difficult task. Elemental noises like fire, water and ice are just that—noise. “They’re not pure tonal sounds,” Nokes explains. But artificial sounds wouldn’t suffice. Not for something so audibly unique as hockey. That's where the foley work comes in, reproducing the sounds of the game itself (as opposed to digitized effects). "If it’s always the same sound, it becomes redundant to the audience’s ear," Nokes says. "That’s why we needed so many different choices. You could look at it and go, you’re crazy. But to me, those subtle differences kept it interesting and not repetitive." 

So his crew strapped mini-microphones onto the heels of skates to keep wind from cluttering the recordings. Nokes traveled to Manitoba and taped body checks in a half-shell rink. Sievert ordered 200-kilogram blocks of ice to the foley studio, slipping into skates and leaning on a foam scaffold to capture the perfect ksssh-ksssh-ksssh. They built a 4-by-8 sheet of medium-density fibreboard and fired slap shots. Someone produced a set of leather goalie pads from that bygone era. They bought different types of blades to mimic the weightier sounds made by heavier, professional Russian players against the scrawnier, college-age Americans. They packed the stands with thousands of extras to capture the roar from Lake Placid.

“We put on pads and recorded banging into the boards a lot, trying to get that rattle of that sound it makes,” Koretz says. “We spent time around the net. We opened and closed the gate to the bench. It was really important for us for us to capture every little bit of it, so you’d get that gritty feel. That’s what I loved about how the movie ended up. It really does feel real.”

Or maybe just ask the NHLers themselves, the folks trapped in an echo chamber of glass. “Oh yeah,” Vancouver defenseman Chris Tanev says. “We hear a lot more than anyone else.” When Tanner Pearson was younger, his father worked for equipment-maker Bauer and often brought him along for morning skates. Now 25 years old, the L.A. Kings forward fondly recalls the boooom of missed shots against the boards. “It just has that nice sound to it,” he says. “I like that.”

Among the handful of players recently surveyed, several mentioned fondness for goal horns, which carry slightly different tones at each rink. Minnesota netminder Devan Dubnyk hates this sound—for obvious reasons—but especially enjoys the thump of a puck bonking off his pads. “Like when you make a good cross-crease save, so you’re reaching and you don’t have a good look at it,” he says. “You can always feel it, but the sound just makes it fun, makes it feel better.”

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For skaters, at least, there is something particularly sweet about nailing iron. “Growing up, you always try to do that, go bar-down,” Anaheim center Ryan Getzlaf says. “It hits and the puck seems like it’s moving a lot faster when you go off the crossbar.” Nashville defenseman Roman Josi will explicitly aim for the posts in practice because of how it sounds, like the chime of a cash register. “I think if the puck’s going out, it’s a little bit higher-pitched,” Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele says. Ponnnng! “Then if it goes post-and-in,” says Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, “the pinnng feels pretty loud, and then the crowd goes nuts.”

Indeed, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon likes when an entire arena gasps. Ahhh! Detroit’s Dylan Larkin gets satisfaction from a crisp pass striking his stick tape. Craccck! Tanev prefers “when guys stop and the ice sprays.” Swoosh! “I love hearing that twine,” says Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau. “Especially when you’re the one shooting it.”

“It’s one of the greatest-sounding games,” says Sievert. “The sharp impact of the pucks and the boards, hitting the glass, the skating. There’s nothing like that sound. I think baseball has the smack of the bat and someone catching the ball, but that's about it. Hockey’s got such a complex bunch of sounds.”

As for the foley artist's favorite? “Probably getting hit into the boards. That's always a good one.”

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