NHL Playoffs: The long history of Stanley Cup broadcasts in America and Canada; Turner and ESPN
2023 Stanley Cup
The Stanley Cup playoffs are in full swing. Currently, it is the middle of the second round, and there have already been some exciting storylines. Both the league’s runaway best regular season team, the Boston Bruins, and the defending champion Colorado Avalanche fell in 7 games to lower-seeded teams in round 1. The Toronto Maple Leafs won a playoff series for the first time in 19 years when they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl has already scored 13 goals in the postseason. (Jake Baskin – left)
But another interesting aspect each year in the hockey playoffs is the broadcast setup. Until two years ago, NBC held the NHL’s national broadcast rights exclusively in the United States. ESPN and Turner Sports took over in 2021–22 on a seven-year deal where they will alternate Stanley Cup Finals from year to year.
Unsurprisingly, Canada has its own national television coverage of the playoffs, as they do during the regular season. The Hockey Night in Canada brand is an iconic one, and Rogers Media started licensing it in 2014 when it took control of exclusive NHL rights north of the border. That deal will run through the 2025–26 season. We will see if the league continues exclusive coverage in Canada at the conclusion of this deal, considering the success they’ve had splitting the rights in the US.
In my adulthood, I have always tried to watch both the American and Canadian feeds during the playoffs. I largely prefer the more reserved Canadian style of hockey broadcasting and the less hot take-oriented studio panels. But the number of great play-by-play announcers from this side of the 49th parallel has been steadily growing over the last decade, and the transition from Hall of Famers like Bob Cole, Mike “Doc” Emrick, and Jim Hughson to the next generation has been interesting to monitor.
In this Jake , I will compare and contrast the three English-language networks that televise playoff games.
The Worldwide Leader has a history with the NHL that many hockey fans remember well. Many fans wanted all the personnel and features that were in Bristol in 2004 to return in 2021. For the most part, that did not happen. The hockey fans among ESPN mainstays (Levy, Buccigross, Cohn) were rewarded for their patience in the dark years with prominent roles. But septuagenarians Gary Thorne and Bill Clement were not brought back, allowing for a transition to the new era of the NHL on ESPN.
Except in the analyst chair, Disney mostly stayed in-house with its talent, which is not typically seen with national networks in the US. Longtime big-game announcer Sean McDonough, who got his first big break in hockey with NESN back in the 1980s, was selected over previous #2 Steve Levy as the lead play-by-play man. ESPN multi-sport announcer Bob Wischusen became the #2. Neither had called much hockey over the past 15 years, and it took both a while to get settled in their roles. Levy and young Mike Monaco also regularly call games.
ESPN did hire some established voices in the analyst chair. Ray Ferraro, widely regarded as the best color commentator in the league, was brought in from Canadian network TSN to work alongside McDonough on the top team. Brian Boucher had risen up the ranks to the top Inside-the-Glass position at NBC and was named ESPN’s #2 analyst. AJ Mleczko has been the preeminent American color commentator in women’s hockey for years and excelled when she was given her first opportunity on the NHL.
Emily Kaplan came to ESPN as a writer, made some TV appearances in both the hockey reporting and panel show capacities, and was named the lead rinkside reporter when Bristol won the national contract. She’s a rising star in that role. It was also imperative that there be a rules analyst on the network like there is for other sports. I can appreciate former NHL referee Dave Jackson’s explanations—no one had to tell him how to properly talk on TV.
Levy is the lead studio host, with fellow ESPN lifer John Buccigross filling in when Levy is doing play-by-play. They’ve passed up experience for star power with their studio analysts, going with all-time greats Mark Messier and Chris Chelios along with recently-retired star defenseman P.K. Subban on the main panel. It’s a different approach than other networks had, and I think it brings credibility to the panel, even if the two Hall of Famers have not spent much time in media.
ESPN’s side programming is abundant, with daily content available on ESPN+ or sometimes on TV. That is what the Worldwide Leader does best as a network, and after NBC abandoned its side programming in the middle of its deal it is nice to see. That is the network’s clear leg up on TNT and Sportsnet.
I would have preferred if they brought in even one play-by-play announcer with recent NHL experience, such as a Gord Miller or a John Forslund, even if they weren’t in the lead chair.
Turner had never covered the NHL on a national basis before 2021–22, and there was a lot of curiosity as to how positions would be filled because of that. TNT answered that question by mostly looking to its American hockey predecessor, NBC. Most of the top talent was brought in directly from NBC, with a few prominent and elevated roles for some less familiar figures. Turner will broadcast the Stanley Cup Final this year.
Kenny Albert succeeded Doc Emrick as NBC’s lead NHL play-by-play man in the final year of that deal, and he slid over to do the same with TNT. Though Albert has called every single sport ever invented (probably), you can tell that hockey is what he loves the most. The other high-ranking play-by-play guys have worked for NBC and currently call games for local teams. The voice of the New York Islanders, Brendan Burke, was elevated from #3 to #2 when Turner got the rights and hopefully he gets a #1 job somewhere at the conclusion of this rights deal. Behind him, there’s young Los Angeles Kings announcer Alex Faust and Seattle Kraken fan-favorite John Forslund.
Turner uses three-person booths for the most part, as NBC did for important games. Eddie Olczyk had been the top analyst with NBC since 2006–07 and is well-liked throughout the league. He was the easy choice as TNT’s lead analyst. Also on the top team is former NBC studio guy and Philadelphia Flyers color commentator Keith Jones. Beyond those two, TNT has highly-regarded local analysts, such as Darren Pang from the St. Louis Blues and Shane Hnidy from the Vegas Golden Knights. There have been rumors that Olczyk may want to run a team’s operations someday as his NBC predecessor John Davidson did. To date, that has not happened.
The top rinkside reporter has not yet been announced, but the odds are with Pang or NHL Network host Jackie Redmond. It could end up being both of them on the Final. Former NHL referees Don Koharski and Brad Meier split time as rules analysts.
Despite a rotating cast of characters, where TNT really has the edge over its competitors is the studio show. Liam McHugh, also brought over from NBC, is the best host in the sport and should really receive more credit for it. Wayne Gretzky hops in as a studio analyst every once in a while and that was a huge get, but usually the panel includes former NBC studio guy Anson Carter, enforcer-turned-podcaster Paul Bissonnette, and future Hall of Fame goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. My favorite segments are the on-ice (sort of) demonstrations, complete with sticks and a goal. Even McHugh jumps into them sometimes.
I’m not usually a fan of three-person booths, but I can fully accept that I’m in the minority here. I do wish sometimes more broadcasters would be utilized during the regular season, to help them gain greater chemistry with their partners.
Canada – Sportsnet
Rogers hasn’t changed a ton fundamentally since the first few years of its exclusive NHL deal. I still think the production is the best in hockey, bar none. But I wonder if there’s a bit of complacency, as we saw with the final years of NBC’s exclusive deal.
The biggest change made in the pandemic era has been legendary play-by-play announcer Jim Hughson’s retirement. That probably would not have happened had Sportsnet not lured Chris Cuthbert, a national-level announcer for 30 years, over from TSN in 2020. Cuthbert is coming down to the tail end of his career, but like McDonough and Albert, he’s still an announcer you get used to hearing on the big games.
Behind Cuthbert there are two younger play-by-play announcers likely jockeying it out to be his successor should Sportsnet keep the rights past 2026. Harnarayan Singh, who gained fame calling hockey games in Punjabi, and the well-traveled John Bartlett are #2 and #3 in the pecking order in their home country.
Unlike ESPN and TNT, Sportsnet utilizes set teams during the playoffs. Cuthbert’s partner is Craig Simpson, a two-time Stanley Cup champion who’s been the lead analyst for Hockey Night since 2008–09. Singh’s partner is Edmonton Oilers color commentator Louie DeBrusk, and Bartlett’s is former All-Star Garry Galley.
Young Kyle Bukauskas, who Charles Barkley referred to as the “Canadian Tom Brady”, has taken over as the lead rinkside reporter in the last few years. Sportsnet does not have a rules analyst. Given how much fans complain about officiating, particularly in Canada, the network probably should invest in one.
Ron MacLean has been hosting Hockey Night since the 1980s and can probably set his own retirement date. If the Foster Hewitt Award covered studio hosts rather than just commentators, he would have been in the Hall of Fame already. Former ESPNer David Amber has been anointed as MacLean’s heir apparent and also gets hosting work during the playoffs.
The studio has undergone a bit of a facelift over the course of the deal. Former NHL goalie Kelly Hrudey still remains, but vibrant personality Kevin Bieksa and four-time Olympian Jennifer Botterill have done well as newer additions to the panel. Insider Elliotte Friedman gets to provide intermission analysis as well beyond his news-breaking.
I feel Sportsnet has a big-game feel in its presentation that the American networks haven’t quite landed on yet. But I’d like to see some younger game analysts being developed. I like each of the top three just fine, but none of them have played pro hockey since the 2004–05 lockout.