Inside the Comets: Eric Kowiatek

by Don Laible

Apr 14, 2014

If you’ve been to a Comets game in The AUD then you know where the in-game videoboard “magic” is created. You may not be aware of it, but the room with the glass windows opposite the team’s merchandise store is where it all happens.

Teamwork, a term used frequently when attempting to explain success, regardless the process and its level of complexity, is alive and well at Comets home games. Stationed in the press box well before the game or pre-game skate takes place, is Gina Nassivera – Comets Director of Game Presentation. Throughout the night, seamlessly and with anonymity, Nassivera centers a majority of all that is seen and heard on the video boards, and by script ensures all sponsorships and fan interaction goes off as planned. Eric Kowiatek

Creating “magic” to satisfied fans by Nassivera comes by carefully designing a pleasing package. Having spent the past three seasons as game operations and event manager for the Rockford IceHogs, Nassivera came to Utica knowing what hockey fans want beyond how the team would skate. With her headset on, the Washington County (NY) native calls the shots to the “magic” room, located on The AUD’s concourse.

Similar to the “war room” in Toronto, where NHL officials staff on game day, to answer requests from on and off-ice officials, the newly built and equipped “magic” room is where the fan experience are born. North Utica native Eric Kowiatek, 27, is the equivalent of an assistnat coach/coordinator for Nassivera on gameday. Taking commands, verbally as well as following the script, brings to life animation combined with video to the video boards as well as the halo video part of the scoreboard.

At a Comets-Albany game, around 5:30pm, 15-minutes prior to doors opening to season ticket holders, Kowiatek is already in position for his night’s work. By day, the Comets’ graphic designer, Kowiatek goes largely unnoticed to the hockey public roaming the concourse due to his back to them. Sitting to the left of Kowiatek is the evening’s technical director Doug Moreau of Sauquoit. Moreau will be working the switcher; the board where he takes shots from the three cameras covering the game and brings them up on-line to the video boards.

From an outsider’s perspective there is an unusual relaxed atmosphere. There are seven screens attached to the wall in front of Kowiatek. He also has a laptop computer at the ready to his right. The main screen in front of Kowiatek is pre-loaded with the various graphics, many of which he designed since signing on with the team this past summer. Throughout the night, on command, these pre-loaded graphics are what he will pull from and bring to life on the video boards. Kiss cam, dance cam, all what have become fan favorites and expected rituals for Comets fans halfway through the inaugural season in The AUD come from here.

Throughout the game even though the binder holding the evening’s script is being followed, additions are added on the fly. At about 6pm, a Comets staffer enters Kowiatek’s domain with a card, a hand written request to be added to the birthday announcements (graphic already created). Without hesitation, Kowiatek effortlessly moves to his lap top and pulls up the birthday graphic and seconds later the addition is complete.

“I’m in communication with Gina on the headset, and we also are in contact with Tom (Comets Public Address Announcer Tom Coyne),” says Kowiatek, while lining up in proper order the evening’s announcements.

While going about combining his in-game ingredients of fan fun for the game, fans stop to see how this person, similar to the great and powerful Wizard of Oz works his “magic”. One of the green guys, who sits by the visiting penalty box taunting opponents, makes an appearance unbeknownst to Kowiatek, and does his shtick before moving on.

Timing is everything for the Comets game presentation to have a successful evening. A partnership between Kowiatek and Moreau on this Friday game is clear. Two hand-held cameras are on ice level, one on the blue seats level. “There are media time outs, we have to be ready for intermissions, goals being scored, and during the national anthem(s),” Kowiatek said.

The game’s script was delivered at 5pm.

With all the technology and precise execution of “magic”  I wondered what would happen if, without warning, there were to be a system crash? Kowiatek tells of just such a scenario having happened this season. He tells of crowd shots on the video boards being shown instead of the action on the ice, totally unknown to the fans. Kowiatek again needs to share his concentration as one of the cameramen comes in to inform him of importing video and computer gig comparisons. Cecelie Pikus, the night’s in-game host and a valuable member to the overall presentation, also stops in for a hello.

The team is an extended family. Where does one get hands-on experience, or any formal training to do what Kowiatek does – Disney? “I learned this on my own,self-taught,” Kowiatek confesses. “I learned photoshop on my own over the years, and in mid-October I sat down in here and learned this system [Click Effects].”

The horn sounds, and the Comets and Devils take to the ice for pre-game warm-ups. The graphic artist explains how he added other duties to his title. It would be Comets President Rob Esche who approached Eric about securing him something to contribute on game days. “He (Rob) said I was smart and that I would pick it up quickly. So, here I am.”

As the concourse begins to clutter with more of the anticipated sold-out crowd, passerbys sneak a peak into the colorfully lit monitors staring Kowiatek in the face. Kowiatek’s right hand moves with the confidence and finesse of a pitcher securing a ball with his best pitch grip. The “show within a show” continues.

As the players return to their dressing rooms, for preparation for the game ahead, and the cameras are cleared to stand down by Moreau, Kowiatek reviews his checklist in his binder. He brings up on his laptop the Steet-Ponte AHL out of town score board graphic , ready for teams and numbers later in the evening. Other graphics and animation are readied for when needed. As the teams starting line-ups are announced, within seconds, Kowiatek has them ready for AUD viewers on the big boards.

On Kowiatek’s main monitor a label reads Wiltzer. Organizer is more appropriate. As one would learn how a motion picture is created, the two choices available would be to either go on location or visit the studio. The “magic” control room located to the right of the Steet-Ponte main ticket lobby is that entertainment hub ,for a fun, interactive experience before and in-between whistles. The seven monitors Kowiatek and Moreau had at the ready on Friday, and at every Comets game in The AUD, remain the eyes and ears to all 3,815 fans.

There is laughter, and interaction between the two in the “magic room” without skipping a beat of what’s going on on the ice, or page in their script books. Eric Kowiatek is a seasoned pro at making hockey “magic”, already. With Nassivera calling signals and Kowiatek following through, AUD fans continue to have much to cheer for and count on at every Comets home game.

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