I've watched TSN's Kraft Celebration Tour for years.
I've seen the yelling, howling and screaming from the fans that showed up at these venues from coast to coast. But like millions of Canadians, I never got a chance to watch it live until Sunday.
The tour came to Bridgewater on the south shore of Nova Scotia - about an hour from Halifax. I live 25 minutes away from Bridgewater in a place called Liverpool, so I took the opportunity to see for myself what the real deal was.
And oh my, there's so much that the TV broadcast doesn't show.
Now the production on Sunday was the very first time that a broadcast team (Rod Smith and Kate Beirness) did back-to-back shows in the history of this event. The pattern is usually the Western Canadian stop (with Jennifer Hedger and Darren Dutchyshen), followed the Eastern Canadian stop and so forth.
But this year, the Western crew did the show from way up north in Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. With the distance they had to travel with all the gear and equipment by truck and bus, it made more sense to have the Eastern crew do back-to-back shows.
And there was a LOT of gear, as five trucks were needed to carry the TSN set and all that Kraft Tour paraphernalia.
Now Rod and Kate finished in Morell, PEI on Saturday evening, boarded the bus and hit the road to touch down in Bridgewater around 2am on Sunday. And the crews for the tour usually have more than a day to get the next show ready. Not this time.
"We usually set up some the day before or have most of it ready and on the day of the event do the rest," a crew staffer told me. But this was not the case in Bridgewater. Here, the crew got up early Sunday morning to set up and with an hour to go was still working on the set.
And there are a lot of people involved with this prodigious production. It takes 40-50 people to do this, along with 100 volunteers from the area to help with the banners and make the signs - a lot of planning and lots of work to be done in a very short time.
All those exhibits - the puck shooting game, the basketball hoops, the booths and other TSN-Kraft material - just don't appear, it takes many to do the work and they consume a lot of time.
But the showcase piece of the tour is the SportsCentre set. And that in itself takes hours to prepare. It gets put up and taken down in one day, so every conceivable check and measure is done to ensure that it's totally ready for the live broadcast.
Cameramen focusing camera lens. Audio feeds and microphone chords being set up. All this and pre-show tests that still have to be done. It has to be done to perfection. Remember, this is a live show. It has to be done right or you'll spot the mistakes right away.
I arrived four hours before the on-air time and there were already a few hundred people. And that swelled to over 2,000 by showtime.
"It was a terrific turnout for a small town - we were impressed," the public relations person told me.
Rod and Kate were in the show planning meeting when I got there, but were happy to meet up with me afterwards. I'm accustomed to seeing Rod in a suit, so it was a surprise seeing him and Kate were wearing more casual Kraft Celebration Tour T-Shirts. For Rod, Morell was his first ever tour experience and an awesome eye-opener.
"It's everything that I've heard about and more," he said. "This is just great. Morell on Saturday and Bridgewater today (Sunday) - it's a great Canadian small town experience that I would probably never get. The people, their energy, and the enthusiasm is terrific. I like small town Canada and to be able to go to Kinsmen Field and run a few football plays was such an experience."
And Kinsmen Field received $25,000 from Kraft - the reason that Bridgewater entered the competition for the Kraft Celebration tour.
"The field has a serious drainage problem," explained Rod. "The money will help. It hasn't rained around here in two weeks and the field is still soggy."
Kate, his co-host, and is already a veteran of the tour. "I've been doing this for three summers and I'm still amazed as to what happens," she said. "Here it is, hours before the show starts and there are hundreds of people. There's going to be a thousand by air time, maybe more - amazing."
Kate is a real competitive gal. She and Rod went fishing for Mackerel in PEI and emphatically said, "Rod caught two but I caught three," with a smile.
She also took a series of pigskin passes from Rod and I must say the lady can catch. "It's so great to go into towns across Canada and highlight something that is important to them, that's terrific," said Kate.
As for working with the Rod the Tour rookie? "He's a real pro and a trooper," she said. And Rod was effusive in his praise about her, saying, "She's dynamite and really knows her stuff."
The idea of Bridgewater applying for the Tour started a year ago, when John Peters saw the show on television and said, "We should apply for this." And after finding a good cause to vouch for, he joined with the Bridgewater minor football program and decided to write a letter to TSN (And the minor football program was highlighted with kids around the SportsCentre set Sunday dressed in blue jerseys).
A call later from TSN told Peters that they made the Top 20 places and they were matched against the town of Windsor, Nova Scotia in the 24-hour run off.
"We called and got great cooperation from the local radio stations (CKBW and HANK-FM)," he told me. "We used Twitter, Facebook and other social media to get the word out and to get people all over Canada to vote for us."
And it worked, as some 223,000 votes came in and made Bridgewater the winner.
Local radio morning man Mike Richards summed it up very well when he said, "It was a terrific day for the South Shore of Nova Scotia and Bridgewater. It's a great community event and to think that over 2,000 people attended in this small town is spectacular."
When I first saw this tour years ago, I thought it was the best thing I've ever seen on TSN. It puts people who've watched this network - since its inception in 1984 - in touch with them.
I still feel this way and after experiencing the Tour live, I'm even stronger in my belief. There's nothing like it in sports television.
This is pure Canadianna.
For TSN.ca, I'm Alex J. Walling.
Alex J. can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org