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The NHL on ESPN is a forthcoming television presentation of National Hockey League (NHL) games on ESPN properties, including ABC, ESPN+, and Hulu, set to return to The Walt Disney Company in 2021.

ESPN first televised National Hockey League (NHL) games in the 1979–80 season, initially by sub-contracting rights from individual franchises. After the NHL shifted to only having one exclusive rightsholder, ESPN acquired the NHL's national television rights in 1985 to replace USA Network (which had previously aired NHL games in parallel with ESPN). ESPN lost the rights to SportsChannel America in 1988.

ESPN regained the NHL's U.S. television rights from 1992 through the 1999–2000 season, with the coverage branded under the blanket title ESPN National Hockey Night. ESPN also sub-licensed a package of network television broadcasts to ABC (sister via ESPN parent The Walt Disney Company) under the NHL on ABC branding until 1994, when the NHL sold a broadcast television package to Fox Sports. In 1999, ESPN renewed its contract through the 2004–05 NHL season, with ABC returning as broadcast television rightsholder to replace Fox.

The 2004–05 season was cancelled due to a lockout of the NHL Players Association. ESPN had reached a two-year agreement to serve as cable rightsholder in a reduced capacity beginning in the 2005–06 season (with a smaller package of regular season games and playoff coverage primarily on ESPN2, and the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals), alongside new broadcast rightsholder NBC. After the lockout, ESPN opted out of the contract. They were instead acquired by Comcast, with telecasts moving to Versus; it held the cable rights (which were later unified with NBC's rights after Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal) through the 2020–21 season.

In March 2021, the NHL announced that it would return to ESPN networks under a seven-year contract beginning in the 2021–22 season. ESPN/ABC and ESPN+ will both hold rights to packages of exclusive regular season games, and share in coverage of the playoffs with Turner Sports—including alternating rights to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Coverage overview[]

Early years: 1979–1982 and 1985–1988[]

ESPN initially covered the NHL during the 1979–80, 1980–81[1] and 1981–82[2] seasons by making deals with individual teams.[3][4] This included eleven Hartford Whalers home broadcasts in 1980–81 and 25 the following year.[5] Branded as ESPN Hockey, Sam Rosen,[6] Barry Landers and Joe Boyle were employed as play-by-play announcers.[7][8] Pete Stemkowski[9] was the lead color commentator. ESPN meanwhile, used "Hot Lunch Jam" by Irene Cara for its theme music. During the opening round of the 1982 playoffs, ESPN broadcast Game 4 of the series between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins and Game 2 of the series between Minnesota North Stars-Chicago Black Hawks,[10] with Sam Rosen and Pete Stemkowski on the call. The season prior, Rosen and Stemkowski called Games 3 and 4 of the playoff series between the St. Louis Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins.

During this time, USA also broadcast National Hockey League games. In order to prevent overexposure, the NHL decided to grant only one network exclusive rights. In April 1982, USA outbid ESPN for the NHL's American national television cable package ($8 million for two years).[11][12] In 1984, the NHL asked ESPN for a bid, but then gave USA the right to match it, which it did.[3]

After the 1984–85 season, the NHL Board of Governors chose to have USA Network 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 the Stanley Cup playoffs.[3][13] 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 the analysts, and Tom Mees and Jim Kelly were chosen to serve as studio hosts. ESPN designated Sundays as Hockey Night in America, but also aired select midweek telecasts. ESPN aired its first game, an opening-night matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, on October 10, 1985.[14]

At the end of the 1987–88 season, ESPN lost the NHL television rights to SportsChannel America, who paid $51 million ($17 million per year) over three years, more than double what ESPN had paid ($24 million) for the previous three years.[15][16][17][18] SportsChannel America managed to get a fourth NHL season[19] for just $5 million.[20][21][22][23][24][19]

SportsChannel America was only available in a few major markets (notably absent though were Detroit, Pittsburgh and St. Louis[25])[26][27][28] and reached only a 1/3 of the households that ESPN did at the time.[29][30][31] In the first year of the deal (1988–89), SportsChannel America was available in only 7 million homes, compared to ESPN's reach of 50 million.[32] By the 1991–92 season, ESPN was available in 60.5 million homes, whereas SportsChannel America was available in only 25 million.[33][34][35]

Return to ESPN and ABC: 1992–2004[]

When the SportsChannel deal ended in 1992, the league returned to ESPN for another contract that would pay US$80 million over five years.[2][36][37]

Until the 2001–02 NHL season, weekly regular season games were broadcast on Sundays (between NFL and baseball seasons), Wednesdays,[38] and Fridays,[19] and were titled Sunday/Wednesday/Friday Night Hockey. Prior to 1999, these telecasts were non-exclusive, meaning they were blacked out in the regions of the competing teams, and an alternate game was shown in these affected areas. During the Stanley Cup playoffs, ESPN and ESPN2 provided almost nightly coverage, often carrying games on both channels concurrently.[39] Games in the first two rounds were non-exclusive, while telecasts in the Conference Finals and Finals[40][41][42] were exclusive (except in 1993[43] and 1994). Beginning in the 1993–94 season, up to five games per week were also shown on ESPN2, branded as NHL Fire on Ice.[44]

Sister broadcast network ABC also aired NHL games during the first two seasons of the contract, in the league's first network television broadcasts since NBC's previous contract in the 1970's.[45] In the first season, this included selected playoff games,[46][47] and later expanded to include a package of regular season games in the second season.[48] These telecasts were produced by ESPN, and were officially considered to be time-buys on ABC by ESPN Inc.[45] This arrangement ended in the 1994–95 season, when the NHL began a new contract with Fox as its broadcast television partner.[49]

In 1998, ESPN renewed its contract through 2004 for $600 million, beginning in the 1999–2000 season. Under the new contract, ESPN was permitted two exclusive telecasts per team per season, while ABC would also return as broadcast television rightsholder to replace Fox.[50][51][52][53]

Move to NBC and OLN: 2005–2021[]

Before the 2004–05 lockout, the NHL had reached two separate deals with NBC (who would replace ABC as the NHL's American national broadcast television partner) and ESPN.[54][55][56] ESPN offered the NHL $60 million for about 40 games (only fifteen of which would be during the regular season), all on ESPN2, with presumably, only some midweek playoff games, the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals and the All-Star Game airing on ESPN.[57][58][59][60]

NBC's deal involved a revenue sharing agreement with the NHL as opposed to a traditional rights fee, and included rights to six regular season windows, seven postseason broadcasts and games 3–7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. ESPN had a two-year deal that they opted out of after the lockout, leaving the NHL without a cable partner. In August 2005, Comcast[61] (who owns the Philadelphia Flyers) paid $70 million a year for three years to put games (54 or more games each season under the agreement, generally on Monday[62] and Tuesday nights) on OLN, later known as Versus. 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.

NBC has continued to serve as the NHL's long-term U.S. broadcast partner. Following the purchase of NBC by Comcast and the merger of Versus into NBC Sports as NBC Sports Network, the broadcast and cable rights were unified in the 2011-12 season and renewed through the 2020–21 season.

World Cup of Hockey, ESPN+ involvement, return of the NHL to ESPN: 2016–present[]

Long after losing their broadcasting rights to the NHL, ESPN served as the U.S. broadcaster of the NHL-backed 2016 World Cup of Hockey, as NBC declined due to programming conflicts.[63][64] After its 2018 launch, ESPN's subscription streaming service ESPN+ added an NHL studio program, a free daily regular season game courtesy of NHL.tv (which is operated by Disney subsidiary BAMTech), and a Stanley Cup Playoffs documentary series (replacing one produced as part of Showtime's All Access franchise).[65] As part of the NHL.tv deal, ESPN+ started a nightly hockey show, In the Crease, hosted by Linda Cohn and Barry Melrose.[66]

On March 10, 2021, ESPN and the NHL announced that the network had agreed to a seven-year agreement to hold half of its new media rights beginning in the 2021–22 season;[67][68]

  • ESPN+ will hold rights to 75 exclusive national games per season, which will also be available on Hulu, and will not be carried by any linear television outlets.[69]
  • ESPN will hold rights to 25 exclusive national games per season, which can air on either ESPN or ABC.
  • ESPN will hold exclusive rights to opening night games, the All-Star Game, and other "special events".
  • The NHL's digital out-of-market package NHL.tv will be discontinued in the United States, with all out-of-market games moving to ESPN+ (similarly to ESPN's agreement for Major League Soccer's out-of-market package)
  • ESPN and ABC will share in coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs, holding rights to "half" of the games in the first two rounds, and one conference final per-season. ESPN and ABC will have the first choice of which conference final series to air.
  • ABC will exclusively air the Stanley Cup Finals in four out of the seven seasons of the contract. ESPN will have the ability to air simulcast coverage with alternate feeds on its other channels and platforms.
  • ESPN will produce a weekly studio program dedicated to the NHL, and hold various highlights and international rights.

On May 10, 2021, Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reported that Ray Ferraro and Brian Boucher had signed with ESPN to become ESPN's top hockey analysts.[70][71] On May 17, Marchand announced that ESPN hired Leah Hextall to be a regular play-by-play announcer on NHL broadcasts, making her the first woman in league history to hold that role. Hextall worked for ESPN for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. [72]

On June 9, ESPN announced that current New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban would be a studio analyst for the remainder of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, making his debut on SportsCenter that day.[73] The same day, Craig Morgan, Arizona-based reporter on the Arizona Coyotes and NHL Network correspondent, reported that ESPN had added Ryan Callahan and A.J. Mleczko to their analyst roster, and that Kevin Weekes, who also worked for ESPN during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, was in talks to return to ESPN as a reporter.[74] Marchand later reported that Weekes had signed a deal with ESPN, and that Bob Wischusen, who currently calls play-by-play for ESPN's college football and basketball broadcasts, would also work NHL broadcasts.[75] On June 24, ESPN officially announced that six-time Stanley Cup Champion Mark Messier had signed a multi-year deal to join ESPN in a studio analyst role;[76][77][78] on June 28 Marchand reported that Chris Chelios would also join ESPN as a studio analyst.[79][71] The same day, The Athletic reported that current Hockey Night in Canada reporter Cassie Campbell-Pascall would also join ESPN.[71][80]

ESPN formally confirmed its commentator teams on June 29, 2021. Sean McDonough will be ESPN's lead play by play voice; Steve Levy leads studio coverage and contributes occasional play-by-play commentary. Joining Hextall and Wischusen as play-by-play commentators is John Buccigross while Messier, Chelios, Boucher, Ferraro, Campbell-Pascall, Weekes, Callahan, Mleczko, Melrose, Rick DiPietro, and Hilary Knight contribute analysis. Reporters include Blake Bolden, Emily Kaplan, and Greg Wyshynski. Cohn continues her duties hosting In the Crease. ESPN also confirmed that Spanish language coverage of the NHL would air on ESPN Deportes; Kenneth Garay, and Eitán Benezra will be the main play-by-play commentators while Carlos Rossell and Antonio Valle contribute analysis and color commentary.[71]


Main article: List of NHL on ESPN personalities


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  15. "SPORTSCHANNEL AMERICA INTERESTED IN BUYING HTS". Norman Chad (Washington Post). June 22, 1988. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/sports/1988/06/22/sportschannel-america-interested-in-buying-hts/fbab2dfb-af45-49f4-bd98-0b20a61c3b00/. 
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  25. Strachan, Al (March 15, 2005). "NHL needs a TV partner". Toronto Sun. http://slam.canoe.com/Slam/Columnists/Strachan/2005/03/15/961494.html. 
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  38. Sandomir, Richard (February 22, 2005). "Picture Is Fuzzy for N.H.L. on Networks". The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/22/sports/hockey/picture-is-fuzzy-for-nhl-on-networks.html. 
  39. "NEVER BETTER: ESPN EXCELS WITH STANLEY CUP FINALS". Jim Shea (Hartford Courant). June 27, 1994. https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-1994-06-27-9406300901-story.html. 
  40. "Fox, ESPN ink deals with NHL". UPI. September 13, 1994. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1994/09/13/Fox-ESPN-ink-deals-with-NHL/5942779428800/. 
  41. "In Stanley Cup Faceoff, Fox, ESPN Play to a Draw". Leonard Sharpio (Washington Post). June 11, 1998. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/sports/capitals/longterm/1998/stanleycup/articles/waves13.htm. 
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  50. "FOX PROBABLY GRATEFUL TO ICE THE PUCK". Jeff Goldberg (Hartford Courant). April 23, 1999. https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-1999-04-23-9904230309-story.html. 
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  52. "Stars' 1-0 triumph brings in viewers". ESPN. Jun 9, 2000. https://www.espn.com/nhl/news/2000/0609/575965.html. 
  53. "PRICE FOR NHL RIGHTS IS RIGHT, DISNEY SAYS". Michael Hirsley (Chicago Tribune). August 26, 1998. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-08-26-9808260035-story.html. 
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  58. "NBC, ESPN TELECAST DEALS A MAJOR LIFT FOR NHL". Jim Sarni (Sun Sentinel). May 20, 2004. https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-2004-05-20-0405200303-story.html. 
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  63. "Why NHL chose ESPN, Sportsnet for World Cup of Hockey". Yahoo! Canada Inc.. https://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/why-nhl-chose-espn--sportsnet-for-world-cup-of-hockey-171635192.html. 
  64. "Sportsnet acquires rights to World Cup of Hockey". Rogers Digital Media. http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/sportsnet-acquires-rights-world-cup-hockey/. 
  65. "Quest for the Stanley Cup moves from Showtime to ESPN+" (in en-US). Awful Announcing. 2018-04-13. http://awfulannouncing.com/nhl/quest-for-the-stanley-cup-moves-from-showtime-to-espn-which-will-also-carry-daily-hockey-show.html. 
  66. "2018-19 NHL Season Puck Drops on ESPN+ October 4" (in en-US). 2018-09-24. https://espnpressroom.com/us/press-releases/2018/09/2018-19-nhl-season-puck-drops-on-espn-october-4/. 
  67. "NHL back on ESPN with 7-year multiplatform deal". ESPN. March 10, 2021. https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/31039351/nhl-back-espn-7-year-multiplatform-deal. 
  68. "ESPN officially announces new TV deal with NHL, featuring 25 games on ABC or ESPN, 75 exclusive games on ESPN+ and Hulu, new studio show" (in en-US). 2021-03-10. https://awfulannouncing.com/nhl/espn-officially-announces-new-tv-deal-with-nhl-featuring-25-games-on-abc-or-espn-75-exclusive-games-on-espn-and-hulu-new-studio-show.html. 
  69. "Winners and losers of the NHL's TV deal with ESPN" (in en-US). 2021-03-11. https://awfulannouncing.com/espn/winners-and-losers-of-the-nhls-tv-deal-with-espn.html. "[Y]ou'll not only need a cable or satellite subscription to access your team's RSN and ESPN, but you'll also need a subscription to ESPN+ or Hulu. 75 games will be streaming exclusive in this TV deal, and while you previously got everything you needed with the cable sub, you now will need to jump into the streaming waters to see every game." 
  70. Marchand, Andrew (2021-05-10). "ESPN adding Ray Ferraro, Brian Boucher as NHL analysts" (in en-US). https://nypost.com/2021/05/10/espn-adding-ray-ferraro-brian-boucher-as-nhl-analysts/. 
  71. 71.0 71.1 71.2 71.3 "Dynamic, Diverse and Accomplished Team to Present ESPN’s NHL Coverage to Fans" (in en-US). 2021-06-29. https://espnpressroom.com/us/?p=216400. 
  72. Marchand, Andrew (2021-05-17). "ESPN signs Leah Hextall in historic NHL play-by-play hire" (in en-US). https://nypost.com/2021/05/17/espn-signs-leah-hextall-in-historic-nhl-play-by-play-hire/. 
  73. "Subban of Devils debuts for ESPN as NHL analyst" (in en-US). https://www.nhl.com/news/new-jersey-devils-pk-subban-to-debut-for-espn-as-nhl-analyst/c-325274252. 
  74. Bucholtz, Andrew (June 9, 2021). "ESPN is set to add Kevin Weekes, AJ Mleczko Griswold and Ryan Callahan to NHL coverage, with Turner adding Anson Carter". Awful Announcing. https://awfulannouncing.com/nhl/espn-kevin-weekes-aj-mleczko-griswold-ryan-callahan-turner-anson-carter.html. 
  75. Marchand, Andrew (2021-06-09). "Kevin Weekes joining ESPN as an NHL analyst". https://nypost.com/2021/06/09/espn-hiring-kevin-weekes-as-an-nhl-analyst/. 
  76. Gardner, Steve. "ESPN adds Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier as NHL analyst" (in en-US). https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nhl/2021/06/24/mark-messier-joins-espn-nhl-analyst/5336871001/. 
  77. "NHL great Messier joins ESPN as studio analyst" (in en). 2021-06-24. https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/31702318/mark-messier-joins-espn-studio-analyst-nhl-coverage. 
  78. Ciccotelli, Jenna. "Mark Messier Joining ESPN as NHL Studio Analyst Starting with 2021-22 Season" (in en). https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2945146-mark-messier-joining-espn-as-nhl-studio-analyst-starting-with-2021-22-season. 
  79. Marchand, Andrew (2021-06-28). "ESPN hiring Chris Chelios to join Mark Messier in NHL studio" (in en-US). https://nypost.com/2021/06/28/espn-hiring-chris-chelios-to-join-mark-messier-in-nhl-studio/. 
  80. Shapiro, Sean. "ESPN to hire Chris Chelios, Cassie Campbell-Pascall for NHL broadcasts: Sources" (in en). https://theathletic.com/news/espn-to-hire-chris-chelios-cassie-campbell-pascall-for-nhl-broadcasts-sources/S3OKaz3BaxVE. 

External links[]

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