NHL drops the puck on new season with new TV deals


New rights holders TNT, ESPN begin new deals

The puck dropped on a new NHL season a few days ago, and it also marked a new era in broadcasting rights in the U.S.

ESPN and Turner each began separate seven-year deals with the league last week, with ESPN broadcasting their first game in 17 years last Tuesday night from a place where their last NHL telecast was from – Tampa, Fla. where the defending champion Lightning won their first Stanley Cup in 2004 with the studio show taking it on the road outside the arena with Steve Levy and Barry Melrose, who were at ESPN when the league last had rights. 

Also on set were Mark Messier and former Chicago Blackhawks and Evergreen Park native Chris Chelios. 

And the studio show started with a “welcome back” piece:

Their coverage kicked off with a doubleheader between the Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins (without Sidney Crosby due to injury) with the new Seattle Kraken franchise on the road against the league’s last expansion team the Vegas Golden Knights from Las Vegas as the nightcap.

The following night had TNT debut their first-ever NHL regular-season game with a studio show featuring former NBC NHL host Liam Mchugh. Joining them was fellow former NBC analyst Anson Carter, three-time Stanley Cup champion Rick Tocchet, former player Paul Bissonnette, and Hall Of Famer Wayne Gretzky, debuting in his first-ever on-air role. TNT had the New York Rangers-Washington Capitals as their first game followed by the Blackhawks-Colorado Avalanche from Denver (and of course, the Hawks lost.) The TNT studio show had some fun too (in the Turner way) with special guest Charles Barkley from sister show NBA on TNT trying to stop shots from Gretzky in a demonstration segment. 

Several NBC veterans were on the call for Turner’s coverage, including Kenny Albert and Eddie Olczyk for the first game. Another familiar face – at least to Chicago viewers is former NBC Sports Chicago analyst and former Blackhawk Jamal Mayers, behind the glass. 

As for on-screen graphics, both ESPN and Turner had decent scoreboxes, both on the upper-left hand side. The graphics were easy to read and just the right size and contained a wealth of information including power play time, penalties, who’s on the ice and a lot more. In essence, better than the scoreboxes NBC Sports’ regional networks and Bally’s inane strip at the bottom of the screen. Here’s a screenshot of each:

In terms of viewership, ESPN and TNT both did well in their opening week. ESPN’s doubleheader drew 983,000 viewers and 783,000 total viewers for both respective games (linearly) – averaging 883,000 viewers, up 54 percent from an NBCSN season-opening doubleheader two seasons ago and 56 percent in the 18-49 demo. TNT drew 817,000 viewers for its first game and 522,000 for the second game, giving them an average of 670,000. By comparison, game two of WNBA Finals between the Chicago Sky and Pheonix Mercury drew 789,000 viewers on ESPN. 

This season, ESPN and ABC plan to air 26 regular season games (the first ABC game is Nov. 26 between the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues); 75 games streamed on ESPN+ and Hulu; and up to 1,000 games streamed on ESPN+, while Turner is airing 72 games per season, including the Winter Classic. The Blackhawks’ home opener against the New York Islanders takes place this Tuesday on ESPN and ESPN+. 

Shifting elsewhere, NBC Sports Chicago aired their first Blackhawks game Friday against the New Jersey Devils with lead play-by-play Pat Foley working a part-time schedule as he planning to retire this season (he was not on Friday’s telecast.) In Canada, national rights holder SportsNet also kicked off their NHL coverage with some changes: a new, simple scorebox in the upper-left hand side of the screen (similar to ESPN and TNT) and Jim Hughson – who many recognize here in the States as the longtime voice of EA Sports’ NHL video game series in the late 1990s and early 2000s, announced his retirement at the end of last season. He was replaced by former TSN broadcaster Chris Cuthbert as the studio shows shifted from CBC’s Canadian Broadcast Centre to a new facility at Rogers in Toronto (Rogers is the owner of SportsNet.) Saturday night games continue to air on CBC as part of Hockey Night In Canada and Rogers’ CityTV stations. 


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