ESPN…. We’ve Missed you!

[Anthony Ciardelli]

I distinctly remember the last time (before Tuesday) that I watched an NHL game on an ESPN-owned TV channel (fuck streaming, I’m old).

I was 17 years old, at a house party in 2004 – on a Tuesday because high school in New England in June stops mattering – watching the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Calgary Flames to win its first Stanley Cup. After the game ended, I left the room to drink what was probably my first beer, not thinking twice about the future of the NHL.

I was too young to care about the dynamics of major league sports, broadcasting rights and “viewing” experience for it to matter. All that registered was that a frustrating hockey season was over and that my Boston Bruins had choked away a three games to one lead to the hated Montreal Canadiens a couple of months before.

A couple of weeks before, I had also missed the final episode of NHL 2Night. I don’t remember what I was doing, probably talking to someone on AIM or downloading…music on LimeWire; who knows.

But seeing it 17 years later, John Buccigross’ heartfelt goodbye from that night makes more sense to me. As I got older (but didn’t mature) and didn’t have the opportunity to play college hockey, hockey itself became more of my identity, rather than just a sport that I enjoyed playing.

As the NHL returned from a lockout and I went to college, I became a hockey guy. Someone who advocated for the sport and the NHL and yearned for it to be as popular as the other major league sports in America.

By then, Comcast (in the form of “OLN” and later “Versus”) was broadcasting the NHL, and I was too happy for hockey to be back to bite the hand that fed me. Soon after Comcast purchased NBC, Versus became NBC Sports Network but not a lot changed. 

Meanwhile, I was hurt by ESPN’s spurning of the NHL. Not only were they not broadcasting my favorite sport, but I also felt that since the NHL wasn’t a partner, ESPN wasn’t paying it much attention on SportsCenter. It felt like hockey rarely made it to the Top 10 plays, while they chose any dunk or deep pass from the NBA and NFL. SportsCenter’s lack of hockey coverage caused me to tune it, and ESPN out almost entirely starting around 2012.

But now, ESPN is back in hockey in a big way, and if their early performance is any indicator, we will all be better for it.

The Worldwide Leader in Hockey

I’ll admit when ESPN regained the rights to the NHL, I was happy but skeptical. I worried it might stick the league on its streaming platform and not provide the wall-to-wall coverage it does with football, basketball and baseball. After its coverage of Seattle’s expansion draft and ESPN’s use of Chris Fowler as the show’s host, my worries increased, especially after his Carolina “Panthers, Hurricanes” Faux Pas.

So far, I’ve been way wrong.

It put games on back-to-back on the flagship network for opening night, and it featured the network’s new hockey show “The Point” during midday and prime time slots.

So far, the “Point” has bodied its NBC predecessors, first “Hockey Central” and then “NHL Live” and “NHL Overtime.” The difference in the names alone should tell you the difference in effort level and creativity between the two networks.

NBC’s studio shows seemed to focus mainly on flattering the NHL and trying to make its audience laugh by sending now excommunicated former NHLer Jeremy Roenick out amongst the masses to make a fool of himself.

ESPN has gone with a good mixture of nostalgia, the occasional puff piece and actual journalism. It’s not afraid to bring up league controversies or things that Gary Bettman probably doesn’t want to be discussed.

Wednesday’s midday show featured a segment leading up to the Washington Capitals’ home opener against their biggest current rival, the New York Rangers. They began by going over the Rangers’ struggles last season, not limited to their on-ice record. ESPN and reporter Emily Kaplan did not shy away from discussing the controversy surrounding former New York Rangers far right-shot defenseman Tony D’Angelo. They also delved into the unfounded accusations against Artemi Panarin that forced him off the ice for an extended period.

NBC may have touched on it when it happened, but they left most of the analysis to former players and coaches and the public statement by the team’s actual general manager. NBC panelist Anson Carter even defended D’Angelo to a point.

Meanwhile, ESPN used a reporter and did not minimize D’Angelo’s issues. It’s real journalism, which is something that NHL coverage in the U.S. has been missing.

An even more shocking part of this segment was that the game wasn’t even going to be aired on ESPN; it aired on TNT, ESPN’s competitor in hockey and basketball, yet they were hyping the game like they were going to broadcast it!

If anyone saw the feature on ESPN’s NHL theme song, they’d also have seen just how good ESPN’s hockey coverage will hopefully continue to be.

The production value and creativity were refreshing. Narrated by Justin Bieber and shot like the old “24/7” series on HBO, this feature gave me chills.

It followed Bob Christianson’s creative process when he came up with ESPN’s NHL theme and then asked NHL players to react to it. The sound of Sidney Crosby’s voice when he hummed the song said everything, and the fact that younger NHLers Adam Fox, Jakob Chychrun and Seth Jones allegedly didn’t even know what it was, made me feel like I needed a walker.

The segment almost felt like the tacit apology to hockey fans from a long-lost friend after burying the hatchet or in this case, the Easton.

The feature ended with Barry Melrose offering Christianson the podium to conduct an orchestra in a performance of the legendary theme. The highlight reel they intercut with the performance even felt like the intro to an NHL video game (in the best way), all leading into the first NHL game televised on ESPN in over a decade.

It was incredible and hopefully, this type of thing isn’t a one-off.

Onto the Games:

ESPN made news over the summer when they announced Leah Hextall would call games for them. It was welcome news, but Hextall’s debut would have to wait.

Longtime ESPN play-by-play man Sean McDonough called the Penguins’ surprising win over the Lightning, and John Buccigross called the debut of the Seattle Kraken versus the Golden Knights.

You could tell both were excited to get back to calling hockey. Though McDonough, a Boston native, and former Red Sox play-by-play guy for NESN, couldn’t resist mentioning which of the Penguins and Lightning players had played for Boston, he showed why he’s good at his job. (Take it from experience hockey is not easy to call)

Buccigross was even better.

Ray Ferraro and Brian Boucher were also excellent as usual.

As for the rinkside reporters, Kaplan and former U.S. Olympian A.J. Mleczko showed you don’t have to be a former NHLer or a man to provide a coherent and informative analysis of an NHL game.

They also weren’t Pierre McGuire, which is a plus.

The camera angles were excellent. In addition to the standard views, ESPN’s SupraCam, which appears to be suspended on a cable system near mid-ice, helped give a new view of extended zone attacks. This is a perfect example.

All in all, the in-game product ESPN brought on opening night made me just as happy as the pregame and postgame shows.

Negatives

There weren’t many on my initial viewing of the game. An echo in the on-ice sound at the beginning of Penguins versus Lightning bothered me a little bit, but that was quickly remedied.

The central point of contention on social media surrounded the score bug. Many local networks, including Bally Sports West, have a constant running counter of shots on goal. NBC employed this same type of thing in the playoffs last year, but it only showed the shot count intermittently before that.

I’ll admit, I do enjoy the shot counter. If you’re just tuning in to a game, it’s a semi-accurate way of determining who’s had the better of the play during the game. That’s not always the case; some shot attempts don’t get through to the net but still count as offense, and some teams don’t generate as many shots but do get better quality shots. But if you’re just tuning into a game, the shot counter does often help tell more of the story than just the score alone.

Hopefully, ESPN will remedy that in the future.

My only other fear is that with the NBA still in its preseason and College Basketball not underway yet, the NHL is only getting more airtime because there isn’t much else to broadcast besides NFL and College Football coverage. Add the later rounds of the MLB playoffs into that mix this week, and we could see ESPN neglect the NHL once again.

I hope that does not happen because this taste of coverage that ESPN gave us, set too high a standard to not live up to.

Follow Anthony on Twitter: @Dellitweets
Photo: Roberto Nixon on Unsplash