ESPN brings mix of hockey roots, new ideas to NHL coverage

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Sean McDonough had done most everything in his accomplished career as a play-by-play commentator — baseball, football, basketball, golf and more. But he hadn’t done hockey in years, and he had been a passionate hockey fan since growing up in Boston wanting to be Bobby Orr.

Sitting in the stands at TD Garden to watch the Boston Bruins play the St. Louis Blues in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, he had a thought.

“I said to my buddies, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a chance to do this someday on national TV?’ ” McDonough said Wednesday.

The chance is coming for McDonough and many others at The Walt Disney Company, which will carry 103 exclusive regular-season games across ESPN, ESPN+, Hulu and ABC and stream more than 1,000 out-of-market games on ESPN+ in 2021-22.

The regular season starts Tuesday, when the Tampa Bay Lightning raise their Stanley Cup banner before playing the Pittsburgh Penguins (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, SN, TVAS) and the Seattle Kraken debut as an expansion team at the Vegas Golden Knights (10 p.m. ET; ESPN, SN, TVAS). The Stanley Cup Playoffs will end with the Stanley Cup Final on ABC.

The NHL hasn’t been on ESPN since 2004.

“It seems like an eternity ago considering the amount of hockey fans that work here all over the company,” said Mark Gross, who oversees the hockey coverage at ESPN as senior vice president, production and remote events.

One of McDonough’s first jobs was calling college hockey on NESN in the 1980s. He recalled a terrific two-way forward from Boston University named Mike Sullivan. When he calls the game in Tampa on Tuesday, that same Mike Sullivan will be behind the bench as the coach of the Penguins.

McDonough has called other hockey in the past, including the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the first to feature NHL players. He said when he heard the NHL was returning to ESPN, he immediately fired off a text to Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and Sports Content, at Disney, to say he wanted to be involved at the highest level possible. He will call NHL games while juggling other sports.

“I love hockey and have been hoping for over a decade and a half it would come back [to ESPN],” McDonough said.

Ray Ferraro will work the Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay game as an analyst with McDonough. Ferraro got his start in television with ESPN after he was traded from the New York Rangers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1995-96 during his 1,258-game NHL career as a forward.

“I was still playing, and so I was hearing it from the guys on the ice about, ‘Hey, why don’t you go analyze that play?’ as I made a mistake on the ice,” Ferraro said. “And then it grew into a career, and to come all the way back around to be able to be involved again at ESPN is a great thrill for me.”

Brian Boucher will work the Seattle-Vegas game as an analyst with John Buccigross, who will do play by play in addition to hosting a studio show dedicated to the NHL called “The Point,” which debuts on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday. Boucher is 44 and an American, and he grew up watching the NHL on ESPN before playing 328 NHL games as a goalie and breaking into television.

“For me this is surreal,” Boucher said. “It’s nostalgic for me to hear that music and go back to my childhood and think about the big games that were played on ESPN, what ESPN meant to me when I was growing up, and to now be a part of this group really is something I’m looking forward to.”

ESPN and the NHL’s other new U.S. media rights partner, Turner Sports, which Gross called “friendly competitors,” are expected to bring a fresh approach to their coverage.

“We do have some new ideas,” Gross said. “At this point, we’re just not ready to announce them, as we’re just kind of finalizing them. But I would look for something to come out from the PR team prior to our opener on Tuesday. But we’re pretty far down the road on a half a dozen ideas that we’ve been working on and have presented to the NHL.”

Asked for details, Gross emphasized access, from cameras in locker rooms to microphones on coaches and players, which generate content to be used in many ways across all platforms. Boucher mentioned camera angles and McDonough talked about technology without getting into specifics. 

“I have been really, really impressed by the enthusiasm for this partnership from the folks at the NHL, all of whom have been incredibly welcoming and helpful already in terms of the preparation and I think eager to do what they can,” McDonough said. “You know, there’s been a number of questions that [Gross] has dodged artfully about technology advancements and that sort of thing, but I do think that the NHL is really excited about what we can all do collectively in that regard as well.

“So the sport’s never been better. I think we have a great team to help advance that reality, really, and can’t wait to get started. Really excited to get started.”

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