ESPN’s NHL coverage made its much-anticipated debut Tuesday night after a 17-year hiatus. The last time the NHL had a game featured on the Worldwide Leader in Sports, George W. Bush was still in the White House and the two-line pass was still illegal. The first of 25 nights the NHL will be on ESPN or ABC featured a double-header, with defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first game. The second game featured the league’s newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken, facing off against the league’s second-newest franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, in Las Vegas.
End Of An Era
Since leaving ESPN after the 2003-04 season concluded, the NHL has called NBC home. The partnership between the NHL and NBC saw the league return from the lost 2004-05 lockout season, where the league was at its lowest point. The league debuted for the 2005-06 season on one of NBC’s fringe affiliate channels, the Outdoor Life Network (OLN). Despite the humble beginnings, NBC was able to launch their sports coverage, including the NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) off the back of the NHL. In turn, the NHL grew in popularity, thanks to a combination of NBC’s coverage, as well as a newer and more exciting on-ice product. The latter came thanks to the elimination of the aforementioned two-line pass, as well as a crackdown on obstruction penalties. The league also emphasized speed and skill in lieu of goonery that slowed the game.
NBC introduced several innovations as to how the game of hockey was covered. One of the most popular and enduring is the Inside the Glass feature. This puts an analyst at ice level, usually between the two team benches. Other innovations include the NHL’s annual marquee event, the Winter Classic, as well as reformatting the NHL All-Star Game to a 3 on 3 tournament.
The New Guys
With their contract to broadcast the league expiring in 2021 after a ten-year deal, NBC opted not to get into a bidding war for those rights. This opened the door to new deals for the NHL, and the league opted for two networks this time around. ESPN and Turner Sports both signed 7-year deals this past spring, giving the NHL the possibility for different coverage styles for the first time in the United States.
As mentioned previously, ESPN will air 25 games exclusively on either ABC or ESPN’s main channel. Additionally, 75 games will be produced exclusively for ESPN+, ESPN’s streaming service. ESPN+ will also take over for NHL.tv as the streaming home for over 1,000 live out-of-market games. Turner will air up to 72 regular season games between TNT and TBS. Additionally, Turner will air the Winter Classic on their networks. ESPN and Turner will split playoff coverage every year, and will alternate who airs the Stanley Cup Finals. This year’s finals will air on ESPN.
It was a night of anticipation for hockey fans. The NHL making its return to ESPN can only bolster league popularity, and fans got what they wanted on night one. ESPN featured the season debut with live check-ins during Tuesday evening’s SportsCenter, billing it as a marquee event for sports. The panel featured ESPN staple Steve Levy hosting NHL legends Mark Messier and Chris Chelios, as well as the ESPN NHL godfather himself, Barry Melrose.
Once the pre-game show started a half-hour before the game, it was lights-out. The broadcast opened with an absolutely chill-inducing intro video featuring a look at the composition and history of ESPN’s iconic NHL score, masterfully narrated by Justin Bieber. Never before has an intro to an NHL broadcast in the US elicited such a feeling. It was beautiful, nostalgic, and quite frankly brought tears to my eyes. If this is what we have to look forward to with NHL coverage, the league can only benefit.
The panel was great. Levy is an expert host, and he deftly guided the talk between the three hockey legends he shared the desk with. Messier and Chelios provided great insight, as well as the unique personalities that make them great hockey analysts. Melrose provided the witty commentary and smart analysis he has become famous for (as well as the legendary mullet).
Apart from the coverage and studio shows, the in-game production is what hockey fans were excited to see. For the Lightning-Penguins game, ESPN debuted veteran play-by-play voice Sean McDonough, with TSN star and former NHLer Ray Ferraro in the booth. Breakout ESPN hockey star Emily Kaplan was inside the glass, and the team was phenomenal. Though the game itself was lackluster (Tampa Bay put forth a lifeless performance and lost 6-2), McDonough generated excitement where he could with the call. Kaplan and Ferraro provided the excellent commentary and bright insight that they have both come to be known for. Each hit for Kaplan was brilliant and engaging. If this is the primary team, the broadcasts are going to be stellar.
The second game, featuring the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken, was absolutely electric, and lived up to every bit of hype it received. The building was rocking, and ESPN hockey veteran John Buccigross captured the excitement with his pay-by-play. Joining him in the booth was former NHL goaltender and NBC alum Brian Boucher. Boucher started his broadcasting career as an inside the glass analyst with NBC, but moving him up to the broadcast booth was a smart move by ESPN. Boucher is great at breaking down what just happened on the ice and explaining it for both the new and veteran hockey consumer. Inside the glass featured former US women’s hockey star A.J. Mleczko to round out the trio. Mleczko provided entertaining and informative sound bites from ice level, and was perfect for the game and the atmosphere. The game came down to the wire, with Vegas staving off a Seattle comeback attempt and winning 4-3. It was the perfect game to close out ESPN’s first night of hockey.
Trying New Things
Part of ESPN’s mission with the NHL is giving fans a new perspective on the game. They want to use new technology and camera angles to get the fans closer, as well as showcase the speed and skill of the players. The first attempt at this on opening night was an interesting experiment. ESPN employed the traditional side camera used for hockey, but also frequently switched to different cameras to immerse fans.The main camera fans may have noticed as new was what seemed to be a free-ish moving camera positioned above the lower bowl at each end of the ice. It gave more of a close-yet-overhead view of the action not seen much apart from outdoor games. Also used were cameras positioned at the ends of the rink, and they were great to show how teams set up in the offensive zone.
ESPN stated they will be trying new things throughout the season. This will be an effort to show fans angles on the game they have never seen. The thought is to truly show viewers just what makes hockey unlike any other game on earth.
There was always excitement with the NHL returning to ESPN. With the league looking to grow, it’s a no-brainer. ESPN will give the league the visibility it just could not get from NBC. The network, being owned by Disney, will also have the resources to make the NHL broadcasts truly special. We got a glimpse of this on Tuesday. It was enough to raise the excitement level even further. The possibility to reach new audiences with the visibility ESPN provides is incredible. And with the production that ESPN puts in their broadcasts, there is real potential to keep those new fans. It will be up to the NHL to limit missteps and keep the games exciting. In summary, ESPN’s coverage of the NHL will be a real treat, for hockey fans new and old.