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ESPN, NHL reunion rekindles excitement from partnership’s past



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The first time I ever watched hockey was on ESPN. The game was also almost six hours long and 7-year-old me didn’t get to bed until 11 p.m.

It was Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final. You know, the moment where Brett Hull never stepped in the crease and scored the triple-overtime goal to win the Stanley Cup for the Dallas Stars.

Yeah, I became a Stars fan that night. Who knows what young Danny would’ve done had Dallas repeated the next season? Curse you, Jason Arnott.

Hull scored, the Stars mobbed each other, and Gary Thorne exclaimed into the microphone, “Deep in the heart of Texas, the Stars are shining!” From that moment, I was hooked.

That kind of excitement is what I’m sure drew a lot of people to the NHL when it was on ESPN. Not only was the Wide World of Sports one of the primary shareholders for NHL rights, but it was the quality analysis and the amount of time dedicated to the sport.

It was the perfect way to grow the NHL in the United States. And then the 2004 lockout happened and everything went kaput. When hockey returned a year later, NBC grabbed the TV rights and would push on for the next 15 years as the home for hockey.

Now, the NHL and ESPN get to rekindle that passion with a new seven-year deal between the two entities, according to Sportsnet on Tuesday.

Make no mistake. NBC has done as good of a job as it can do in the past 15 years to bring the NHL back to the forefront. The league, however, lost a ton of luster following the lockout.

There’s no telling how the NHL would’ve capitalized off the 2004 season if business kept going. The Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning were coming off an amazing seven-game Cup Final; two teams not even considered to be at the forefront of title contention conversation.

And while the TV side of things wasn’t at fault for the lockout in 2004 — or even the 2012-13 lockout that cut the season in half — NBC put more money into the NHL than ESPN was willing to give.

The 10-year, $2 billion TV deal for NBC in 2011 was great in hindsight. Not only did it provide hockey to the most basic cable user, but it was a chance to continue to grow the Versus network. Unfortunately, ratings never heightened because 1) people couldn’t find the Versus network, and 2) the aforementioned 2012 lockout killed that momentum.

Combine the halt in appeal and NBC’s marketing of the sport, it never materialized to what it could have been. NBC spent the past 10 years trying to profit on the “hardcore” markets, like the Original Six teams and the East Coast clubs that fell out of contention years ago. There’s only so much a national audience can stand a Chicago-Detroit matchup.

That one-sided thinking was evident in the 2019 season. The Vegas Golden Knights, one year after the improbable Cup Final run, were on national TV nine times.

The Blackhawks, who won 33 games and lost all dynasty allure, had an astonishing 19 national TV games in 2018-19.

It’s surely a collaborative partnership in which teams go on TV and which don’t. When’s the last time you’ve seen the Minnesota Wild on national TV? You’ll get that chance Wednesday when they play Vegas on NBCSN.

But you can see the problem here.

A new TV deal often means networks have a chance to right the wrongs their predecessors provided. ESPN has the chance to broaden its approach to its viewers and bring back those casual viewers.

Especially next season when the Seattle Kraken arrive in 2021, ESPN has so much opportunity to capitalize on that forefront; unlike what NBC failed to do with the Golden Knights.

NBC can very much get a piece of this deal; ESPN has rights to at least four Stanley Cup Finals. There’s plenty of chances to get a piece of the pie.

For now, ESPN is back at the forefront with this NHL deal. They’ll have ample opportunities to get those young hockey viewers watching three-overtime Cup Final games and get into hockey.

Also, bring back Gary Thorne. We don’t need him calling anymore Gleyber Torres home runs against the Orioles.

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Danny Webster has covered the Vegas Golden Knights since their inaugural season. A graduate from the Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV, Danny has written about the Golden Knights for and SB Nation. He is now the lead reporter covering this young franchise for Vegas Hockey Now. Follow him on Twitter @DannyWebster21.

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