Reviewing ESPN’s long-awaited return to NHL

The NHL's return to ESPN should be viewed as a success. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The NHL’s return to ESPN should be viewed as a success. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

NHL fans had waited many years for a night like Tuesday night. As reputable and as powerful as NBC is and remains, the league had to return to ESPN, and the big show, in order to take that next step as a brand and to further legitimize the sport. 

ESPN is the most powerful machine in sports broadcasting. Its neglect has hurt the league to this point, and its renewed interest is the biggest thing that’s happened to it in a long, long time.

However, with nearly two decades between broadcasts and so much on ESPN’s plate as it is, there was some worry about what this relationship would look like, at least out of the shoot. But after a highly successful debut broadcast and opening-night doubleheader in Tampa Bay and Las Vegas, it seems obvious that the league is indeed in good hands.

Here are four takeaways from Night 1 of the NHL on ESPN:

Star power

It was the perfect reintroduction. 

ESPN both flexed its muscle and tapped into the nostalgia, recruiting pop star Justin Bieber to tell the origin story of the network’s iconic NHL on ESPN theme song with its opening tease for the broadcast and season. Bieber himself is uniquely connected to the sport as a super fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a super friend of the team’s star centre, Auston Matthews. Still, it remains an example of the might ESPN possesses and what the network can make happen when it chooses to do so. 

But as big as Bieber is, it was the story he told that really resonated with hockey fans. ESPN’s new theme song is universally loved, and the composer deserved the shine he received as the tune spent all these years on the shelf. Grown adults were emotional over this. 

There are so many stories to be told — some unique to ESPN and others neglected by previous rights holders. Now we’re going to get them.

Strong mix of new and old

As we know, there were a handful of hockey-crazy on-air talents working at ESPN throughout the league’s 17-season absence on the network. Steve Levy, Linda Cohn, and John Buccigross were among the few that kept beating the drum, so it’s nice to see them all featured prominently in ESPN’s return. 

Levy and Cohn hosted the games, running panels that included Mark Messier, Kevin Weekes, Chris Chelios and ESPN-staple Barry Melrose, while Buccigross called the second game of the doubleheader after refining his play-by-play skills at the collegiate level in the interim. 

Buccigross was very entertaining, and the perfect sort of broadcaster to carry an audience through the back half of a doubleheader. His call on Morgan Geekie’s gorgeous goal was particularly good.

The strength, though, is in the talent ESPN recruited to fill in the gaps. With Sean McDonough and Ray Ferraro, the network has one of the most talented play-by-play broadcasters in the industry and the best colour analyst in hockey. The lead broadcast duo is supported from ice level by ESPN’s top NHL insider, Emily Kaplan, who provided off-beat colour from between the benches. Meanwhile two of NBC’s strongest talents, Brian Boucher and A.J. Mleczko, seemed to form immediate chemistry with Buccigross on the late game. 

Overall, the in-game teams were stronger than the panels, but that might be expected on opening night.

Multiple utility between the benches

The most interesting bit of innovation was ESPN’s decision to slot Kaplan between the benches, or a spot normally reserved for breaking down the happenings of the game at ice level by a traditional colour analyst. Instead, the network is using that spot (at least with its top broadcast team) for a very common technique employed by ESPN, which is basic sideline reporting. Only it’s doing so with its No. 1 news breaker. 

Kaplan told stories that lived outside of what was happening between the whistles from that position, which is an aspect we haven’t really seen in hockey. It’s an interesting way to add context, and certainly something that could be extremely effective if done right — which should be the expectation with Kaplan. 

The strategy was different in the second game, where Mleczko was featured between the benches. She offered the traditional in-game insight from the position, sharing colour responsibilities with Boucher. Both methods worked, and ESPN proved that not all broadcasts have to be the same to be successful.

Broadcast features 

If anything lacked on the broadcast, it was ESPN’s in-game features or innovations — though those things invariably tend to take time to perfect, or at least to convince the audience that it can add value. Among them, the least effective was the “RUSH” feature, which was basically just a decision to shut off the microphones and embrace the natural (and beautiful) sounds of high-paced hockey while running through the catalogue of camera angles. It might have potential if the network can find a way to enhance the sound, but they are gambling on that shift or sequence to be entertaining which is not always the case. It also put the broadcast at risk of missing the first-ever Seattle Kraken goal, which would have been a disaster. 

ESPN also introduced an aerial camera angle, and stuck with it for long stretches. It might become less jarring over time, but it’s also possible that it just doesn’t work in-game.  

Lastly the graphics packages were very clean, but the score bug needs a shot counter, as many people were quick to point out. That’s an easy fix.

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