ESPN National Hockey Night was the ESPN's weekly television broadcasts of NHL regular season games and coverage of playoff games that was broadcast from 1992 to 2004. ESPN was been slated to broadcast games for 2004–05 NHL season, but the season's cancellation combined with NHL reaching an agreement with OLN (now called NBCSN) to broadcast games for 2005–06 NHL season effectively ended National Hockey Night after 2003–04 NHL season.
1980–82 and 1985–88Edit
ESPN initially and previously covered NHL in 1980–82. They had a rather limited slate of games, which were all broadcast from U.S. arenas: Hartford, Washington, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Colorado in 1980–81 and the New York Islanders (while deleting Hartford) in 1981–82. ESPN covered a selected amount of playoff games in 1982. After 1984–85 season, the NHL Board of Governors chose to have USA and ESPN submit sealed bids. ESPN won by bidding nearly $25 million for three years, about twice as much as USA had been paying. The contract called for ESPN to air up to 33 regular season games each season as well as the NHL All-Star game and Stanley Cup playoffs. The network chose Dan Kelly and Sam Rosen to be the network's first play-by-play announcers, Mickey Redmond and Brad Park were selected to be color commentators. Tom Mees and Jim Kelly were chosen to serve as studio hosts. ESPN designated Sundays as Sunday Night Hockey, but also aired select midweek telecasts. ESPN aired its first game, an opening-night matchup between Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, on October 10, 1985. ESPN ultimately went on another hiatus (lasting through the end of the 1991–92 season) from the NHL following the 1987–88 season, when SportsChannel America outbid them.
From its debut in 1992 until the 2001–02 NHL season, weekly regular season games were broadcast on Sundays (between NFL and baseball seasons), Wednesdays and Fridays. They were titled Sunday/Wednesday/Friday Night Hockey. Prior to 1999, these telecasts were non-exclusive, meaning that they were blacked out in the regions of the competing teams and an alternate game was shown in these affected areas. Beginning in 1999–2000 season, ESPN was permitted 2 exclusive telecasts per team per season. When ESPN started broadcasting NBA games on Wednesday and Friday nights in 2002, the weekly hockey broadcasts were moved to Thursday and the broadcasts renamed to Thursday Night Hockey. Beginning in 1993–94, up to 5 games per week were also shown on ESPN2 (dubbed "Fire on Ice"). During the Stanley Cup playoffs, ESPN and ESPN2 provided almost nightly coverage, often carrying games on both channels simultaneously. Games in the first 2 rounds were non-exclusive, while telecasts in the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals were exclusive (except in 1993 and 1994).
Versus Replaces ESPN Edit
Before the 2004–05 NHL lockout, the NHL had reached 2 separate deals with NBC (who would replace ABC as the NHL's American national broadcast television partner) and ESPN. ESPN offered the NHL $60 million for about 40 games (15 games would be during the regular season), all on ESPN2 (with presumably only some midweek playoff games) the first 2 games of the Stanley Cup Final and the All-Star Game airing on ESPN. The NBC deal stipulated that the network would pay the league no rights fees (which was unheard of practice to that point). NBC's deal included 6 regular season windows, 7 postseason broadcasts and Games 3–7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in prime time. The contracts were to commence when the lockout ended. The NBC deal expired after the 2006–07 season and NBC had picked up the option to renew for the 2007–08 season (Just like the AFL/NBC agreement which the network did not renew in 2006). The NHL and NBC shared in revenues from advertising.
ESPN had a 2 year deal that they opted out of after the lockout, leaving the NHL without a cable partner. In August of 2005, Comcast (who owns the Philadelphia Flyers) paid $70 million a year for three years to put games (54 or more NHL games each season under the agreement, generally on Monday and Tuesday nights) on Versus, and finally became NBCSN. Due to the abbreviated off-season, the 2005–06 schedule did not offer OLN exclusivity, which they received in 2006–07. Versus would also cover the playoffs and exclusively air Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals.