Why the NHL Reconnecting with ESPN was huge for the League

Prior to the National Hockey League’s 2004-2005 lockout, ESPN had been partnered with the NHL and had the rights to show the league’s games. It was always exciting. Gary Thorne, who was the main play-by-play guy at the time, made a career out of incredible calls. A lot of which would send goosebumps down your entire body, including this call on Paul Kariya’s 2003 Stanley Cup Finals goal.

Not to mention, 5 games a week were also shown on ESPN 2, only adding to the pure excitement of hockey being broadcasted by such a large network. However, when the lockout I previously mentioned came along, ESPN refused to get into a bidding war, eventually losing the rights to broadcast the league and the company went on to sign a massive deal with the NBA and Monday Night Football. At the time ESPN felt that they would be overpaying for the rights to a league that simply just wasn’t popular enough to justify it.

The NHL moved to NBC Sports from 2005 onwards which proved to be underwhelming, to say the least. NBC never really did a good job of marketing the league itself and it was painfully obvious just how far ahead the other major sports leagues were in terms of how well marketed they were. Add this to the fact that hockey is simply just not as popular as baseball and basketball or football in American sports and you realize that the NHL could ill afford to be behind the 8 ball when it came to marketing.

But, in a world where streaming is now taking over, and after a 16-year absence from the NHL….it again made sense for ESPN to reconnect with the National Hockey League. The Walt Disney company which owns ESPN and ABC announced a 7-year partnership that would see 25 games a season and half the playoffs broadcasted on either ESPN or ABC, as well as four of the seven Stanley Cup Finals in the deal. It was later announced that ABC would televise 10 of the games in the 2021-22 season, consisting of the Thanksgiving Showdown and a Saturday Game of the week package beginning in late February. ESPN will air 18 games.

As for streaming, it was announced that 75 exclusive national games would be broadcast on ESPN+ and Hulu with most of them being on Tuesday and Thursday nights this season.

Like I said earlier, the NHL will never be as popular as the NFL, MLB, or NBA but that doesn’t mean the league can’t grow due to this deal. With ESPN being the worldwide leader in sports the game now has the potential to grow globally. In order for this to work though, ESPN will have to post the league a lot on their Instagram and Twitter feeds. For example, if they posted a Connor McDavid end-to-end goal and a random sports fan just getting exposed to hockey saw it, this would be the kind of benefit the NHL needs.

Diversity in hockey is also a big thing when it comes to popularity, it’s a touchy subject, but most of the league is predominantly white. Other factors like how expensive the sport also contributes to the problem.


The larger media coverage will allow for more fun personalities in the league. The NHL has been pretty bad when it comes to showcasing individual personalities. The few fun personalities in the league are mostly from Europe like Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrňák, which only make up 27% of the league. Larger media coverage will allow for more personalities and make the league fun as a whole.

That’s a key thing for the league though, being fun. During the 1990s, what killed the league was when teams like the New Jersey Devils won games 1-0 or 2-1. And I know this will not sound good, but the Islanders will not be marketed that much on ESPN. The Islanders fit the description of those ’90s Devils that win games 2-1 and do not score that much. The NHL should promote the physical aspect of the game but mainly prioritize the scoring aspect of the game because frankly, that’s where the game has headed in today’s world.

But ESPN must have good play-by-play announcers and analysts or this deal will go down the drain fast. If you have ever watched baseball on ESPN you know why this is a big concern. They cannot have Barry Melrose be on every broadcast in the playoffs or regular-season game. That will kill the sport and make it excruciating to watch for even die-hard hockey fans. They need to bring in guys like Brendan Burke, and especially Gary Thorne. Considering the retirement by Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, the NHL is looking for its next voice. Someone who can be remembered for giving us all goosebumps.

I think it’s an absolute tragedy that Gary Thorne isn’t calling NHL games anymore. As I stated earlier in the article, his antics and just the pure delivery of his calls are something that the casual fan can latch onto, which is what all of this is about in the first place.

The only way this goes wrong for the league is if the NHL ruins it themselves. If they continue to not give the most boisterous players enough of a platform to be themselves then even ESPN won’t be able to help. We need to see more of a player like Ovi behind the scenes. Fans will love it and at the same time, you will see the casual fan get drawn in. I’ve known so many people myself who didn’t really like the sport of hockey itself but they’d come tell me that they thought so and so was a cool person and player. The NHL can grow if it wants to.

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