ESPN’s NHL Retreat First Signaled At 2016 World Cup Of Hockey

ESPN’s lackluster effort covering the 2016 World Cup of Hockey was the first signal of the network’s recent purge of NHL talent

Quickly, name the four biggest professional sports leagues in the United States. NFL, MLB, NBA and … NCAA football!  We’ve all heard some version of this tired joke, but most Chicago  Blackhawks fans seem to relish the NHL’s slightly under-the-radar profile.

Nonetheless, I was happy to have the 2016 World Cup of Hockey appear on a well-known television platform last September, and intrigued that ESPN would be broadcasting the games, despite those aggressively moronic TV commercials featuring the fictional “Reg Carling” bum-rushing various NHL stars.

But here we are eight months later with ESPN announcing a massive purge of its tremendous pool of journalistic talent, including many top-tier NHL correspondents and writers. See Colin Likas’ detailed report for specifics on the recent layoffs, but ESPN’s disappointing effort covering the 2016 WCH pretty much served notice that its network’s “heart” really wasn’t pulsing with the life’s blood of hockey.

Here’s a look back at ESPN’s coverage of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Where’s the game?

Team USA’s miserable performance and early exit smothered any hope for a huge audience and titanic matchup against Canada in the tournament final. Hockey fans will usually find a way to view a game, but ESPN’s decision to air only a handful of games on its flagship channel made it difficult for fans who don’t subscribe to ESPN3 or ESPNews.

In addition to lots of empty seats at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, the overall television audience was disappointing throughout the tournament. The biggest television audience for the WCH was a paltry 494,000 viewers for Game 1 of the final.  

Average on-air talent

ESPN’s effort to frame the WCH as September’s premier sporting event was dampened by the untimely death in August of the network’s preeminent anchor, John Saunders.

In his place, the network scrambled to rotate a trio of capable veteran anchors to host the pregame and postgame shows. Those featured NHL Hall of Famers Brett Hull and Chris Chelios, whose stiff, awkward personas could best be measured in board-feet rather than quality minutes.

Hull seemed to struggle just to swivel in his chair a bit towards Chelios, whose gaze appeared permanently fixed in a thousand-yard stare on top of his sleep-inducing, monotonous voice.

For game commentary, ESPN trotted out skilled playcaller Steve Levy along with their NCAA Frozen Four team of John Buccigross and Barry Melrose. Now a jocular grandfatherly caricature, Melrose offered mostly vapid commentary, but was at his best pressuring (unsuccessfully) NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to divulge the league’s intentions regarding expansion to 32 teams and participation in the 2018 Olympics.

Former goaltenders Kevin Weekes and Darren Pang are both seasoned commentators who did a commendable job offering insight between the benches. In my view, the team of Buccigross and Weekes, in a couple of pre-tournament games, provided the most engaging game commentary of the entire WCH. Overall, ESPN’s gameday coverage was average at best, offering little real-time analysis of the action on-ice. 

NBCSN still the best

Sounding its broadcasts with the most stirring theme music in sports, NBC Sports Network still provides the game’s finest commentary with playcaller Mike Emrick, analyst Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuire behind the glass. Augmented with CSN’s large pool of local broadcasters, the network has a deep bench to cover multiple regional games and all Stanley Cup Playoffs games.

An entertaining feature of NHL.TV’s subscription service is the ability to view the local broadcasts of all NHL teams and enjoy the wide variety of styles they provide, ranging from moribund to frantic.

I’m biased, but none are better than the Blackhawks’ CSN team of Pat Foley and Olczyk. Most Blackhawks fans would likely agree Edzo’s endearing teaching moments of “Stop it right here!” and “For all you young hockey players” really helps fans of all ages to better understand the game and how it’s played.

One and done?

Now that Team Canada has hoisted another championship trophy and the NHL Network has finally ceased those endless re-runs of WCH highlights, ESPN has left the ice, so to speak. The World Cup of Hockey was a one-off chance for ESPN to present a fresh and innovative production that could win new fans and perhaps signal its intent to compete when American broadcast rights come up for grabs in 2021.

In the end, ESPN did little to distinguish itself from the competition or show any real commitment to televised professional hockey. And with this week’s round of pink slips, the network has played its hand.

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