The past two nights, the National Hockey League opened its 2021-22 regular season. It was also the beginning of the league’s new television package with ESPN and Turner Sports (TNT).
For the past 15 years NBC Sports had the television rights in the United States along with its partners Outdoor Life Network, Versus, and NBC Sports Network. They had gained the rights after the lockout that cost the league a full season back in 2004-05. NBC acquired the NHL with a no-rights fee agreement the first season.
Then in April, when NBC decided to end their NBCSN channel and did not want to extend their contract, the NHL put the rights up for bidding. The last time this happened back in 2010, there was a luke warm at best reception from the networks for interest in the game.
This time around, the landscape of television and sports have changed with the ability to stream live games a key. The Walt Disney Company (ESPN/ABC) and Turner (TNT) came into negotiations with the league and came up with a seven-year contract with reports saying the cost was $625 million a season ($400 million ESPN/ABC and $225 million Turner).
The money is far short of what the other three professional sports get for their games, however for hockey in the United States, it was shocking and surprising to say the least.
Here is my look on how the two networks covered opening night.
ESPN-The Worldwide Leader in Sports had the NHL three difference occasions since their beginning in 1979. The last being from 1995-2004. When the league came out of that 2004-05 lockout, the network pretty much told the NHL we don’t want you anymore and for a better word ignored the league and the sport.
In 2021, there was a different regime running the network in Bristol, Connecticut and this group was more receptive to Bettman and the League. Many people in the hockey world did not like the NBC contract and wished they would be back with the Worldwide leader. In April, those people got their wish when the deal was consummated.
Tuesday night’s doubleheader started with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. ESPN’s number one announce team of Sean McDonough and Ray Ferraro with Emily Kaplan ‘inside the glass’ were good.
McDonough is good doing every sports and he has done hockey most noticeably the 1998 Winter Olympics when he was CBS Sports the first time NHL players participated in the Olympics.
Ferraro, a former NHL player, did some ESPN work back in the early 2000’s since then he was doing games in Canada at both TSN and Sportsnet. Kaplan, who is one of the NHL insiders (sore or like Buster Olney for baseball and Adrian Wojanowski in basketball) is an up and coming star. She was spectacular with the insight.
The intermission was a little awkward.
Yes, there was Steve Levy and Barry Melrose on the set along with Hall of Famers Mark Messier, and Chris Chelios. I just thought there was no flow between the quartet. It will get better as they more reps and when the intermission is back in Connecticut.
The second game was in Las Vegas as the Golden Knights battled the NHL’s newest team, the expansion Seattle Kraken. ESPN’s number two team John Buccigross and former NHL goalie Brian Boucher with former US Olympic star A. J. Mleczko between the benches.
Buccigross is one of the network’s biggest hockey supporters. He was the host of ESPN 2’s NHL tonight in 2004 and had done the NCAA Frozen Four for the network and is host of the network’s new NHL show ‘The Point’ and is always good.
Boucher, the former goaltender, came from NBC and where he was the between the benches reporter and was in their studio shows as well as the lead analyst for the hockey competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. He had some good moments as well.
Mleczko who was a star on the U.S. Women’s hockey team leading them to medals also came from NBC where she was analyst and was part of the first all-female NHL telecast late last season. She had her moments and will grow
The intermissions were handled by long-time ESPN and NHL fanatic Linda Cohn and former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes. You got nothing but the best from Cohn in anything she does and along with Kaplan got my number one star of the night.
Weekes is solid he did games on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada and with the NHL Network here he was an in-studio analyst as well. He joined ESPN in time for their coverage of the Kraken’s expansion draft coverage. He is a great pickup for the Worldwide and we will see him a lot during the season.
Overall on opening night, they were good and were passionate. In some cases, they needed to shake the rust off after 17 years.
TURNER/TNT-For the first time since 2000 the NHL has a secondary television partner. At that time, it was FOX who shared with ESPN. In 2021, it will be Turner Sports.
This is their first crack at the sport to add to their outstanding coverage of the NBA and Major League Baseball. For those who remember when it was just WTBS-TV 17 they did the Atlanta Flames games from 1977-80 before the team moved to Calgary.
The network’s opening tease to the telecast was absolutely stunning!
NHL legend and Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky along with current NHL stars remembering their first times on skates, their first hockey stick, and their first NHL game. The opening ended with “For the First Time”
Turner’s NHL debut started in Washington where the Capitals hosting the New York Rangers. They sent their number one team of Kenny Albert, Ed Olczyk, and Keith Jones to do the game.
Albert is just like his father Marv, he does a lot (NFL and Major League Baseball on Fox even three-on-three basketball in the summer) as well as the radio voice of the Rangers and was NBC’s lead announcer in their final season with the retirement of Mike Emrick. One Word…CLASS!! He is the top play-by-play guy in the league now and he showed it inside Capital One Arena.
Olczyk, a former player and head coach, was part of that 1994 Rangers Stanley Cup team, long time analyst with the Chicago Blackhawks and with NBC. Is a perfect complement to Albert like he was when he did the games with Emrick.
Jones, a former player was a studio host at NBC along with being on the television team of the Philadelphia Flyers. He was a little shaky when they did a preseason game a couple of weeks ago in Boston (Philadelphia Flyers-Boston Bruins). On this night, he still was a little cumbersome but corrected his mistakes.
The second game of the night was in Denver as the Colorado Avalanche with the Chicago Blackhawks with Brendan Burke and Darren Pang on the call. Burke is the current TV voice of the New York Islanders and was a great pickup by Turner to be the number two voice. Most observers believe he could succeed Albert as the top play-by-play man in the league and showed that in this game call.
Pang, like Boucher and Weekes, is a former goalie who did some ESPN when they had the contract. Since then he was has done games for TSN in Canada, NBC’s Olympic coverage with Emrick, and currently color analyst for the St. Louis Blues. He, like McDonough, was part of CBS’s 1998 Olympic Hockey coverage.
One of Pang’s quirks is, he will do some oohs and ahhhs while the play was happening. Most do not like that, for me I want that enthusiasm not yell and scream but show he is in the game and not be robotic.
The Intermission and Studio show….Simply outstanding
It started with the studio with has a net and stick and demonstrations and was used to great extent later in the evening. Turner made the big splash in the TV battle hiring Gretzky to be the studio analyst. TNT was in a bidding war with ESPN for the Great One’s services. The hire also showed that the network is committed to the NHL on TV.
They then built the team around number 99 for the studio show in Atlanta.
They hired Liam McHugh who was the studio host on NBC and NBCSN’s NHL coverage. They grabbed former player Anson Carter also from NBCSN then filled the studio spots with former NHL player and head coach Rick Tocchet and Paul Bissonette who does color on the Arizona Coyotes as well as his own Podcast.
Many people on social media were critical of Gretzky speaking over two goals and the eight-minute soliloquy by Bissonette’s response to a question. Both of those faux pas are correctable and will get better.
The topper of the night was long time NHL fan Charles Barkley coming into the studio. I loved it when Charles donned the goalie pads and tried to stop Wayne from scoring. It was a great coup to bridge the network’s other sports coverage to the NHL.
When Turner acquired the NHL rights, many believed they would do something like they do with the NBA in the studio (Barkley-Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’ Neal). I totally disagree, they want to studio to stand on its own starting with that studio they built, and on this first night they did so.
A national sports talk host said about the new NHL on TV “Treat the hockey fan with respect.” Both networks were good but TNT on their first regular season game won my vote HANDS DOWN.