Hockey returns to ESPN in well-produced World Cup of Hockey coverage

Francis Boeck, Reporter

Americans are doing something they rarely ever do in September: talk about hockey. Yes, in a month that is supposed to be reserved for football and a bit of baseball, people are actually talking about hockey. And they have good reason to.

The World Cup of Hockey is back for the first time in 12 years, featuring players from all around the world representing their country (or continent), in international play, that in my opinion, is much higher quality than that of the Olympics. ESPN broadcasts every game and the television product has matched the on-ice product.

New this year is some changes to the makeup of teams. Germany and Slovakia have combined with all European countries (excluding Russia, Finland and Sweden who each have their own teams) to create Team Europe. Also new, a team North America has been created to showcase the NHL’s young talent; the team is made up of players 23 years and younger from the U.S. and Canada.

I’ll admit, I was only six years old during the last World Cup of Hockey, but by looking back at the rosters from teams like Germany/Slovakia, I can tell Team Europe brings in a roster with higher quality hockey players.

On Team Germany, just six of 25 players on the team played in the NHL that year and four of the players on Team Slovakia did not play in the NHL. All but two players on Team Europe currently play in the NHL, and the two players are free agents who have had long careers in NHL.

All of team North America’s young all-stars are on an NHL team. The team has the first overall picks from five of the last six NHL Drafts. Young stars like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel (top two picks of the 2015 draft), Auston Matthews (first overall pick of the 2016 draft) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (first overall pick in the 2011 draft) are showcased together on one team to showcase to fans the future of the NHL.

Not only does this create a great product for the fans, but the league is able to make their young stars more visible for fans and advertisers alike.

The on-ice product is not the only thing that has improved in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. The television product has improved immensely. Hockey is back on ESPN!

For the first time since 2004, professional hockey (even if it isn’t really the NHL) is back on ESPN. ESPN National Hockey Night ran from 1992-2004, with weekly regular season games and coverage of playoff games. After the lockout in 2004, ESPN opted out of their deal with the NHL and has not broadcasted an NHL game since.

I was very young back when the NHL was still on ESPN, but watching the World Cup of Hockey on ESPN is reinvigorating for me as a hockey fan. The ESPN broadcast is much more lively, bright and energetic than the NBC coverage. The commercials leading up to the event are exciting, and the theme song from ESPN National Hockey Night give a sense of re-birth.

The broadcasters themselves have brought new perspectives to hockey. SportsCenter anchors John Buccigross, Steve Levy, Linda Cohn and Adnan Virk are fresh new voices that bring the game to life. Analysts Kevin Weekes, Berry Melrose, Darren Pang, Brent Hull and Chris Chelios give insightful information about the action.

When the NHL returns in just a few weeks, will TV viewers realize how boring the NBC broadcasts are?

It will take a few days for television ratings from the tournament to come out, and that will likely be the biggest judge of the success of the World Cup of Hockey. We will see if ESPN is now interested in getting in on contact negotiations for NHL television rights in 2021 when the NBC deal expires. We’ll also see how NBC will respond after seeing the effort ESPN put in to broadcasting the World Cup.

Either way, the NHL will chalk up the World Cup of Hockey as a success. They took a risk of injuries to some big star, however, the tournament was put in the heart of football season and fans could’ve thought having a Team North America and Team Europe was just downright silly.  But the league has started to fall out of the ‘big four’ of sports leagues in the United States and needed to take strong action to get their product more visible.

The NHL managed to escape the tournament without any major injuries, the big stars showed and played hard for the most part and fans have bought into a young all-star team of North American players who held their own. Plus, hockey is being talked about in September. The biggest question the NHL still has: What kind of momentum will the World Cup of Hockey bring into the 2017 NHL season?

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