How will ESPN’s NHL coverage look different from what we’ve seen on NBC’s networks the last 15 years?
“We’re trying to figure it out,” said Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president in charge of hockey coverage. “We know what the music is going to be.”
The familiar “NHL on ESPN” theme is back. But the network is determined to make a splash in its first NHL games since the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, beyond the personalities named in this past week’s roster announcement.
The network’s coverage starts with the July 21 Seattle expansion draft, hosted by Chris Fowler on ESPN2. John Buccigross will host the NHL Draft two days later. Those shows will be produced by NHL Network.
When Gross spoke over the phone this past week, ESPN (which reportedly paid $410 million a year for seven years of NHL rights) and Turner ($225 million a year over the same period) still hadn’t divvied the games. The NHL had yet to release its 2021-22 schedule. Its puck- and player-tracking data has not seen the light of day.
“One thing we’re trying to get our arms around is what analytics teams and coaches use to showcase in our game coverage, our studio coverage,” Gross said. “Camera positions is another thing we’re looking at, talking to the league to see how we can showcase and document the games.”
Strategy and speed are the buzzwords Gross hears in his daily conversations with NHL people. Capturing both, while serving hard-core fans, hooking viewers from the massive pool of casual sports viewers who don’t give hockey much thought, attracting diverse genders and backgrounds . . . all are among Gross’s concerns.
“There has to be a level of entertainment without it being forced,” he said. “There’s really nothing worse on TV than forced fun. We have to find our spots, when we get [Chris] Chelios and [Mark] Messier together, who have a relationship. We’ll mix and match with other folks.”
Chelios and Messier, along with Steve Levy, will likely work the major events. “We know how that works,” Gross said. Hearing the two Hall of Famers, owners of some sharp elbows, chime in on player safety decisions should be interesting.
While he may not be hockey’s answer to Charles Barkley, Chelios does seem like a straight shooter. In a phone call, he acknowledged he wasn’t looking for a gig when he reached out to ESPN after the announcement. He was calling as a dad, hoping that his daughter, Lightning TV reporter Caley Chelios, was on the network’s radar.
“I like to think I’ll call it like it is,” said Chelios, 59, “Even though it’s a little different than when I played, hockey’s hockey.”
Messier, Chelios, Hilary Knight, Ray Ferraro, Brian Boucher, and Cassie Campbell-Pascall were among the first names Gross mentioned when speaking about his roster, but a lineup has yet to be solidified. He noted that women will be featured prominently in on-air roles.
The list of local connections is long, from Boucher (Woonsocket, R.I.), A.J. Mleczko (Nantucket/Harvard), former Red Sox play-by-play man Sean McDonough (Boston), Buccigross (who has Boston roots), Rick DiPietro (Winthrop/Boston University), ex-Boston College Eagles Blake Bolden and Bob Wischusen, and Emily Kaplan, a former Globie.
Gross said another fan favorite from the past, play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne, remains an option. He spoke with the agent for Thorne, 73, this past week.
“We’re not done yet,” Gross said. “We want to see what the schedule looks like, and what other decisions we have to make. We still have time.”
What’s the game-changing idea that will separate ESPN? It won’t be glow pucks and robots (fun as they were for younger fans in the ’90s). What’s hockey’s version of the K-Zone?
“Some people thought the first-and-10 line would be too intrusive,” Gross mused. “Now you can’t really watch a game without it.”
One voter’s ballot in depth
I consider it a privilege to vote on year-end NHL awards as part of my duties with the Professional Hockey Writers Association. I’m not alone. My peers and I want to get it right.
When it came to this season’s MVP, I believe we did.
Connor McDavid earned all 100 first-place votes for the Hart Trophy, becoming the second unanimous MVP ever (Wayne Gretzky, 1982). McDavid’s 105 points in 56 games goes down as one of the most dominant seasons in league history. He was playing at a different speed than everyone else.
In the voting bloc — trimmed from about 175 to 100 members, and dispersed regionally to address imbalances created by the divisional-only schedule — we saw some refreshingly progressive thinking, and as always, some strange calls. One Edmonton writer voted McDavid’s teammate, Leon Draisaitl, second for the Selke. Draisaitl made strides this season, but it would be generous to call him an above-average defensive forward, much less elite.
In this space last year, I delved into my methodology, which blends in-person viewings, video study, and number-crunching. Obviously this season, I relied more on the latter two. I was among the few beat writers who traveled all season, but I only watched the East Division up close.
My ballot, and some quick takes:
Hart Trophy — 1. McDavid; 2. Auston Matthews; 3. Nathan MacKinnon; 4. Aleksander Barkov; 5. Brad Marchand.
Relatively easy calls. McDavid was incredible, and the other four were the driving forces on good teams. Marchand was ranked as high as No. 2 on six ballots.
Norris Trophy — 1. Adam Fox; 2. Cale Makar; 3. Charlie McAvoy; 4. Dougie Hamilton; 5. MacKenzie Weegar.
A youth movement, and an ECAC/Hockey East top three. Makar (UMass) missed 12 games, or 21 percent of the season, leaving the door open for Fox (Harvard), who was the Rangers’ MVP in his second season. McAvoy (BU) might be the best five-on-five defender in the game. Weegar opened eyes after Aaron Ekblad’s injury. Eleven blue liners earned top-three votes. Victor Hedman was down-ballot for me, after an injury-plagued regular season. Don’t ask me why someone gave Kris Letang a first-place vote. Fun fact: Fox is the first player of Jewish descent to win a major NHL award.
Calder Trophy — 1. Kirill Kaprizov; 2. Jason Robertson; 3. Alex Nedeljkovic; 4. Josh Norris; 5. Igor Shesterkin.
Kaprizov (27 goals and 51 points in 55 games) was a slam dunk, though Robertson had a brief midseason run that made it interesting.
Lady Byng Trophy — 1. Jaccob Slavin; 2. Jared Spurgeon; 3. Barkov; 4. Roope Hintz; 5. Johnny Gaudreau.
I’ve said before that writers should not vote for this. Referees should. Slavin, an elite defender playing heavy minutes, committed one penalty all season (for shooting the puck over the glass). Good enough for me.
Selke Trophy — 1. Barkov; 2. Patrice Bergeron; 3. Joel Eriksson Ek; 4. Phillip Danault; 5. Joe Pavelski.
Barkov had a strong MVP case, but his 200-foot excellence was properly recognized here. Bergeron is still Bergeron. Could see Danault, after his lockdown playoffs, be front of mind for a lot of voters next season.
The PWHA does not vote on the Vezina Trophy (the general managers selected Marc-Andre Fleury), but we do pick the year-end All-Star teams. My goalies, in order, were Andrei Vasilevskiy, Fleury, and Juuse Saros. We also pick All-Rookie teams. I had Kaprizov, Robertson, and Norris as my forwards, Ty Smith and K’Andre Miller as my defensemen, and Nedeljkovic in goal.
League will not rush to judgment
The alleged cover-up of sexual assault by the Blackhawks was the leading topic in Gary Bettman’s annual pre-Stanley Cup Final news conference this past week. Rightfully so.
Bettman said the league learned of the allegations “relatively recently” and will wait for an independent review.
According to a lawsuit filed in May, a former Blackhawks player alleges he and another player were assaulted by then-video coach Brad Aldrich during the team’s 2010 championship run. The team’s leadership, which included current GM Stan Bowman, were allegedly informed of the incident by then-skills coach Paul Vincent, whom the players had told.
Aldrich later worked at a high school in Michigan, where he was convicted of sexual assault involving a student. He is now on Michigan’s sex offender registry.
Multiple ex-Blackhawks, including Nick Boynton, Daniel Carcillo (then with the Flyers), and Brent Sopel, spoke out this past week. One unnamed player told The Athletic that “every guy on the team knew.” Captain Jonathan Toews took issue with that, telling that outlet he didn’t hear about the allegations until the end of that summer. He said he couldn’t say for sure if the team “mishandled” the situation.
Bettman, a former lawyer, pumped the brakes. “Let us see what the investigation reveals, and then we can figure out what comes next,” he said. “I think everyone is jumping too far, too fast. This is going to be handled appropriately and professionally, and done right.”
Let’s hope so.
Beijing Olympics not a given
Later in his Q&A, Bettman shared the league’s “real concerns” over whether it was “sensible” to have a two-week shutdown for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
After sitting out 2018 — and watching interest in Olympic hockey wane — the NHL and NHLPA last summer collectively bargained to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics, pending further agreement with both parties, the IIHF, and IOC. But there is no plan yet.
COVID-19 variants remain a worry, and NBC isn’t likely to lobby on the NHL’s inclusion following the expiration of the TV deal. The NHL hopes to release its 2021-22 schedule shortly after the Cup Final.
“Time is running very short,” Bettman said, which came as disappointing news to Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman.
“The Olympics is one of the biggest dreams of mine and I haven’t been able to participate in one. This might be the last chance I get. That sucks to hear,” said Hedman, who was left off Team Sweden in 2014. “When you get an opportunity to represent your country on the biggest stage, it’s one of those things that you’ll probably never forget. For me, it’s obviously something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life and something I want to do before I hang up my skates.”
Pride working on title defense
The NWHL’s Boston Pride are deep into an Isobel Cup summer, hauling the trophy from New England lake houses to the Grand Canyon.
As he preps for a title defense, coach Paul Mara is playing his cards close. After a few defections, he’s using his newfound salary-cap space — the league doubled the ceiling to $300,000 — to bring in some outside help.
“Working on a few things,” he said.
The NWHL is feeling momentum entering its seventh season. An influx of sponsorship dollars, visibility from its Isobel Cup playoffs broadcast on NBCSN, and a lot of player raises have elevated the mood.
Since last month, the four franchises under league control — the Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, and Minnesota Whitecaps — were sold to private owners, making it a league of six independent clubs. Expansion is on the horizon, with Montreal a primary target.
Also notable: This past week’s draft, which was streamed on Twitch, included appearances from a range of pro sports personalities, including NHL league and team executives, and USA Hockey reps. The NWHL hasn’t always had such vocal support.
For all the growth, players aren’t yet earning a living wage. Contracts are yearly. Outside opportunities create a talent drain.
The Pride lost president Hayley Moore to the AHL (vice president of hockey operations), replacing her with 1998 US Olympian Colleen Coyne. They are searching for a GM, after Karilyn Pilch this past week signed on with the Chicago Blackhawks’ scouting and player development department.
They also need a few good forwards. Mary Parker, Carlee Turner, and Lexie Laing departed for job and school reasons. Czech standout Tereza Vanisova signed with Leksands IF in Sweden, which will better help her participate in a demanding Olympic training schedule.
League MVP Jillian Dempsey, recovered from shoulder surgery, returns with All-Star linemates McKenna Brand and Christina Putigna, the No. 1 defense pair of Kaleigh Fratkin (two-time NWHL Defender of the Year) and Mallory Souliotis, and netminders Lovisa Selander and Victoria Hanson. That crew, plus whomever Mara can lure to town, should keep the Pride near the top of the standings.
Unlike last season, when the Pride got a boost from No. 1 overall pick Sammy Davis (BU) and six drafted rookies, the draft won’t have a major impact. Because they lost their 2021 first- and second-round picks when they traded up to select Davis, and dealt their third-rounder to Buffalo for future considerations, the Pride picked in the fourth and fifth rounds (Weston’s Finley Frechette and Beverly’s Abby Nearis, both forwards).
The NWHL’s player pool was thinned after the NCAA granted players an extra year of eligibility, leading many of the top draft-eligible players to return to school. Because of that, Boston isn’t the only team that believes next year’s draft will be loaded.
The Bruins have promoted from within of late, calling up coaches from Providence and the player development ranks. It makes sense that fourth-year P-Bruins coach Jay Leach would replace Jay Pandolfo on Bruce Cassidy’s staff, but player development staffers Chris Kelly and Jamie Langenbrunner will also get a look. Like Pandolfo, they were two-way forwards with long NHL résumés . . . As for Pandolfo, the move to BU gives him a shorter path to a head coaching gig. Albie O’Connell, who is entering the final year of his deal, has had a spotty run . . . Bruins strength and conditioning assistant Kenny Whittier also made the move to BU . . . A few first-timers joined NHL benches this past week, including two ex-players, Alex Tanguay (Detroit assistant) and Tuomo Ruutu (Florida assistant), and André Tourigny (Arizona coach). The latter move was particularly interesting, for a league that often recycles head coaches . . . Toews, after a year out of the spotlight with a mysterious illness, is back on the ice. He posted a video message to fans after a practice, saying doctors told him he has “chronic immune response syndrome,” a catch-all term for constant, debilitating stress reactions. Still dealing with a few symptoms, the Blackhawks’ captain believes the condition was brought on by a nasty bout with COVID-19 in February 2020, before the pandemic hit in full; the toll of 13 NHL seasons; and the year-round hockey training schedule he’s followed since he was a young teenager. “I think there’s a lot of things that just piled up,” he said, “where my body just fell apart.” He hopes to return in October . . . Edmonton trimmed Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s $6 million cap hit, but took a beating on term, when it locked up the No. 2 center to an eight-year, $41 million deal with a full no-move clause. He will be 36 when it expires. “No contract is perfect,” GM Ken Holland acknowledged . . . Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon’s take on game jersey ads, which are coming to the NHL sooner rather than later: “If we look like Formula One or NASCAR, that’d be fine with me.” . . . Glad to see college athletes everywhere get a chance to make some cash off their name and image, following the Supreme Court’s hammering of the paternalistic NCAA. A small step, long overdue.