This article has been updated to reflect new reports of Turner’s plans for lead announcer.
After 15 seasons, the NHL will officially depart NBC in 2021–22 in favor of a new, seven-year TV deal with ESPN and Turner Sports.
The truth is that NBC deserves a great deal of credit for taking a chance on the NHL following the season-long lockout in 2005, and it helped put the NHL in a position to receive a reported $625 million a year combined on the new TV deals with ESPN and Turner. The league was looking to split its rights across multiple networks, and ended up tripling its network revenue over its previous contract.
Some specifics of the new deal: ESPN, which last televised the NHL in 2004, will reportedly pay $400 million per year. The Disneys will televise 25 games a season on ABC or ESPN, and 75 exclusive broadcasts on streaming services ESPN+ and Hulu. The Worldwide Leader will also take control of the NHL’s out-of-market streaming package.
Technologically, the media world has exploded since NBC entered its NHL deal in 2005. The big word in television circles is streaming. So rightsholders ESPN and Turner both get more than just traditional television.
Turner, which has never televised the NHL on a national level, will reportedly pay $225 million each season. It will televise 72 games a year on TNT or TBS, including the Winter Classic, the NHL’s popular annual outdoor game on New Year’s Day. Turner also landed rights for their online services—a highlight package for Bleacher Report, and simulcasting streaming rights for HBO Max.
ESPN and Turner will split coverage of the first two rounds of the playoffs. Each rightsholder will televise one conference final a season, with ESPN getting first choice on which Conference Final it wants to broadcast. The Stanley Cup Final will be split too, with ABC airing the Final in even-numbered years and TNT in odd-numbered seasons.
For Turner, the challenge will be to match NBC’s ratings covering the Stanley Cup Finals. Going from an over-the-air network to cable, especially in this day of cord cutting, will likely result in fewer viewers.
For generating the big bucks NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, 68, deserves a feather in his cap. It’s possible that he will be retired the next time the NHL negotiates its network rights.
But who will be calling the action for each network? Here are some names I’m speculating about.
For play-by-play, the clear frontrunner for the top job is Steve Levy. The voice of Monday Night Football was the #2 announcer for ESPN’s NHL coverage by the end of its last run, and was the lead voice for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Though he hasn’t called an NHL game since 2004, Levy has been one of the Worldwide Leader’s most trusted hockey voices, traveling to the Stanley Cup Final in each non-pandemic year. I consider him a great hockey caller, and a more than capable #1.
Sean McDonough is a name who’s expressed interest in calling hockey again. One of ESPN’s top all-around play-by-play announcers, McDonough has a lengthy hockey history, working for ESPN on both NHL and college hockey coverage at various points. He hasn’t called any hockey though in the last 15 years, but I would be interested in hearing how he does.
John Buccigross, the voice of the Frozen Four, will have some role, either in play-by-play, the studio, or both. I would also like to see some of the other names who have worked extensively on college hockey coverage be given opportunities, such as multi-sport ESPN college broadcaster Clay Matvick and freelancer Ben Holden, who was with CBS Sports Network until the end of the most recent college football season. Baltimore Orioles broadcaster Kevin Brown covers the NCAA Hockey Tournament each year, as does Canadian freelancer Leah Hextall, who called her first NHL game last year. They could both be matches.
If Disney is looking to go with existing full-time NHL voices, Gord Miller, who works for NBC and ESPN’s Canadian sister network TSN, would be a superb get if it can land him. Washington Capitals TV play-by-play man Joe Beninati and New Jersey Devils TV announcer Steve Cangialosi do occasional work for ESPN in other sports. New York Rangers backup radio commentator Don La Greca, who hosts a hockey podcast for ESPN, might be under consideration as well.
There are fans clamoring for previous #1 announcer Gary Thorne as well.
In the analyst chair, former NHL coach Barry Melrose will have a major role, within the booth or studio. Except for a brief period where he returned to the coaching ranks, Melrose has spent the last 25 years working for ESPN, and has been a regular on SportsCenter, as well as whatever live hockey coverage the network has had since losing the NHL rights.
Rising star Colby Cohen will get a lot of opportunities with ESPN. The 32-year-old former Boston University star is ESPN’s lead college hockey analyst, and has received game analyst reps with Westwood One and more recently a fill-in chance with the Chicago Blackhawks. I believe he will become a household name in hockey circles fairly soon.
St. Louis Blues TV analyst Darren Pang worked for ESPN during its last run and was part of the broadcast for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, who also worked on the World Cup broadcast, is likely to land with ESPN as well.
ESPN has connections to a few of NBC’s mainstays. The Bristolites don’t traditionally hire many outside voices who are already national names, but I would expect management will look at AJ Mleczko, the face of women’s hockey coverage in America who has excelled since adding NHL games to her schedule in 2018. But I imagine she will stick with NBC for the 2022 Olympics. Lead NBC (and Blackhawks) analyst Eddie Olczyk got his start at ESPN during his playing career, but he also contributes to NBC’s Triple Crown horse racing coverage and may not want to give it up if the networks insist on exclusivity. NBC has shown a willingness to bring in outside talent for special event coverage, however, such as utilizing Mike Breen and Marv Albert on Olympic basketball while they were under contract elsewhere.
Boston Bruins studio analysts Billy Jaffe and Andrew Raycroft have contributed to ESPN’s college hockey coverage in the past and are experienced game broadcasters as well. It would be smart for ESPN to at least check on the availability of TSN’s Ray Ferraro and Mike Johnson, two of the best game analysts in hockey today, with Johnson more likely to jump ship. I’m also curious about Buffalo Sabres studio analyst Martin Biron, who TSN utilizes on occasion but who lives on the American side of the border.
Now that John Davidson is out of a job with the Rangers, I wonder if ESPN pokes around to see if he has interest in a return to broadcasting.
ESPN writers Greg Wyshynski and Emily Kaplan could be rinkside reporters for big games.
Studio hosts will be Buccigross, In the Crease host Linda Cohn, and young Nabil Karim, a Canadian who has made appearances on ESPN’s hockey coverage since moving down from his home country in 2019.
Regarding studio analysts, Hall of Famers Chris Chelios and Brett Hull were on the panel for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. ESPN New York talk show host Rick DiPietro was a #1 draft pick and goaltender for the New York Islanders. ESPN likes coaches, so maybe it will hire an ex mentor who is either between jobs or nearing the end of his career. One that comes to mind, if he doesn’t land another job, is NHL Network’s Bruce Boudreau, who has coached three NHL teams.
UPDATE: Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports that Kenny Albert has been named Turner’s lead NHL play-by-play announcer. Arizona Coyotes beat writer Craig Morgan reports that Eddie Olczyk has agreed on a five-year deal to become Turner’s lead analyst.
TNT has no hockey-adjacent personnel on staff, so it can go in a number of different directions. I do think most of the NBC personnel are more likely to end up with Turner than ESPN. When Fox outbid CBS for the NFL rights in 1994, lead announcers like Pat Summerall, John Madden and Dick Stockton migrated to Fox.
NBC has three play-by-play announcers at the top of its depth chart who I would have confidence in being a network number one, presiding over the Stanley Cup Final. NBC’s presumptive lead voice, Kenny Albert, has plenty of big-game experience and has waited a long time to become the Voice of hockey in America. The radio voice of the Rangers has a full NFL schedule with Fox in the fall, but that shouldn’t be an issue with Turner, who employs NFL callers Kevin Harlan, Ian Eagle, and Spero Dedes on its basketball coverage. I’d rank Albert as the most likely option for Turner’s top spot.
Soon-to-be Seattle Kraken TV voice John Forslund has also earned the chance to be a #1 NHL announcer. The longtime Carolina Hurricanes broadcaster has seen his star rise since NBC landed exclusive coverage, and he may be the most popular hockey announcer in America today following Doc Emrick’s retirement. It should be noted that the regional network that will televise Kraken games is partially owned by WarnerMedia, TNT and TBS parent.
I’m also a big fan of Islanders TV announcer Brendan Burke. The 36-year-old in my humble opinion merits consideration to be a lead national broadcaster, and I imagine that both of the new rightsholders will have interest in him. Beyond those three, WarnerMedia’s regional networks are also home to Vegas Golden Knights and its voice Dave Goucher and Pittsburgh Penguins play-by-player Steve Mears, who has worked nationally in the past.
I would also consider some of the younger NHL play-by-play guys with national experience such as Los Angeles Kings TV broadcaster Alex Faust, Washington Capitals radio voice John Walton, and NHL Network’s Stephen Nelson who was with Bleacher Report before taking his current job. Nelson could also serve as a studio host.
In the analyst chair, your guess is as good as mine. Lead NBC Inside-the-Glass analyst Brian Boucher is 44 and doesn’t have a local job outside of NBC. The 13-year NHL goaltender has made a quick rise to the top since joining the Peacock after his retirement, and I imagine he’ll be in pretty high demand.
I believe a number of NBC analysts will find their way to Turner. One easy fit is Anson Carter, who lives in TNT’s home base of Atlanta. Experienced both in the studio and on games, the Michigan State graduate will likely have a place on the broadcast if he wants it. I’d also look at recently-retired studio analysts Patrick Sharp and Dominic Moore, with the idea of getting them booth reps as well.
Shane Hnidy played two years in Atlanta for the Thrashers and now works for the WarnerMedia-owned regional network in Las Vegas. He could serve as Turner’s top analyst for West Coast games, and I don’t think the Golden Knights would prevent him from doing so. San Jose Sharks TV analyst Bret Hedican, a longtime NHL defenseman, would also be a good choice for those games.
Turner could swipe a few younger analysts from other networks with the promise of giving them a regular game schedule. I’m specifically thinking of Sportsnet’s Kevin Bieksa, who lives in the United States, and NHL Network’s Mike Rupp. Both are around 40 and have emerged as promising commentators with long careers ahead of them. I wonder if ex-Atlanta Thrasher Colby Armstrong, another young, US-based analyst working for Sportsnet, could be poached for a studio role.
I can’t guess specifically who the hosts and rinkside reporters will be. Neither of NBC’s top studio hosts—Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen—have a reason to leave the company. It will probably be a mix of internal names—maybe a few people from Bleacher Report or NBA TV will move over to the hockey side—and Turner might bring in an outside hire who’s more connected to the hockey world to lead its coverage.
For studio analysts, I know Turner would like to hire star players with some blarney as it does so successfully for Inside the NBA. Can Turner create that magic in hockey? Hall of Fame-type NHLers don’t generally get into the media side post-career as they do in other sports. There’s no NHL version of Charles Barkley or Shaq.
I do believe Turner will reach out to veteran players with colorful personalities nearing the end of their playing careers to see if they would have an interest. One name I could see being approached is Ryan Miller, the retiring Anaheim Duck who is the all-time leader in wins by an American goaltender and has never been afraid to speak his mind. I could also see any of the retired NHLers who have started podcasts making their way into more traditional media.