There are 17-year-olds who have never lived in a world where NHL games were broadcast on the biggest sports network of them all.
Instead, from the end of the 2003-2004 season to the conclusion of the league’s 2020-2021 campaign, fans connected hockey with NBC and its family of networks.
More than a decade and a half later, hockey is back on ESPN.
Led by mainstays like Steve Levy and John Buccigross, ESPN officially welcomed hockey coverage back to its programming in October of 2021, and didn’t let up with an opportunity that had escaped the network 17 years prior.
Pregame shows. SportsCenter segments. Interviews with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Commentary from ESPN superstars like Stephen A. Smith and Chris Berman. Analysis from NHL royalty like Mark Messier and Chris Chelios.
You name it, and ESPN was probably doing it to raise awareness before the puck was finally dropped to open up the 2021-2022 season.
The network also made it very easy to find analysis and highlights on a pretty immediate basis, complete with an “NHL on ESPN” YouTube channel that posted videos leading up to, and throughout, Opening Night.
As great as everything leading up to the two Opening Night games was, the most important piece is the actual product that is presented to the public for the game itself.
Kicking things off, ESPN dusted off a classic to hit fans right in the feels with a blast of nostalgia.
More than 17 years after their last NHL broadcast, the network brought back their iconic hockey-centered theme song, complete with a cinematic presentation about the music’s importance.
From there, the teams both on the ice and off of it were off to the races.
Play-by-play man Sean McDonough, known to many for his run as the voice of ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcasts for a few years, took the reins alongside Ray Ferraro for the season opener between the Pittsburgh Penguins and reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Emily Kaplan added loads of value as the ice-level reporter, a role that many are used to seeing names like Pierre McGuire and Brian Boucher in during the NBC Sports broadcasts, and instantly established herself as a vital piece of the operation.
Mic levels for McDonough and overall excitement between the broadcast duo were the two main complaints from viewers, but it’s hard to think that won’t improve as ESPN and the announcers get more reps.
From there, ESPN turned things over to arguably their strongest NHL announcing duo in play-by-play man John Buccigross and analyst Brian Boucher.
Buccigross did a great job in the decade-plus that ESPN was without the NHL to keep the sport in the forefront, specifically from the collegiate perspective. Meanwhile, Boucher was a star during big moments throughout NBC’s NHL coverage.
Both Levy’s and Buccigross’ dedication to the league and the sport as a whole has been evident throughout ESPN’s break from NHL coverage, and it seemed like each rose to the occasion for a moment they had been dreaming about for a long time.
Similar to Mike “Doc” Emrick during his time with NBC, those excited and passionate voices are the most important thing for the audience to hear, especially for a sport that many may not be used to seeing if their daily viewership is focused on ESPN.
ESPN put together a stellar team of knowledgeable, fantastic announcers and analysts to utilize on its ESPN and ABC broadcasts, all of which NHL fans should be ecstatic about moving forward.
Whether it’s the more classic and formal voice of McDonough, the familiar faces like Levy, Buccigross, Barry Melrose, and Linda Cohn, or the fresh perspectives from the likes of Kaplan, Olympic and world champion Hilary Knight, or former NHL forward Ryan Callahan, it’s a who’s who of characters for hockey fans to enjoy.
Add in the presence of the NHL on TNT in the coming years, and the additional star power the Turner family provides with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Charles Barkley, and more, and hockey will start to feel like a much bigger deal in the wide world of sports.
It’s all great to see at the onset of the new deals for the NHL with ESPN and TNT, but the most important thing will be ensuring that those personalities stay involved for the weeks, months, and years to come.
All in all, with no disrespect intended to NBC after all of the effort they put into covering the sport in the interim between ESPN’s last game and the network’s return, having NHL coverage on ESPN feels like returning home.
With so many resources to dedicate to pregame, postgame and live coverage and so many different avenues to watch games and highlights, the move back to ESPN makes it feel like all is right again when it comes to being an NHL fan.