Looking Back at the Impact of NBC’s NHL Coverage

The NHL recently took steps in securing their future on national television by agreeing to a seven-year deal with Disney and Turner, beginning in the 2021-22 season.

The new pacts will mark the end of a 15-year partnership between the NHL and NBC Sports after the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs. NBC was the sole right holder on network television during that span and proved instrumental in helping the NHL rebuild following the 2004-05 lockout.

The state of affairs in the NHL before the lockout signaled the league needed an overhaul in its image and perception both on and off the ice. The stars of the league that defined the 80s and 90s, such as Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier headed towards the twilight of their careers, while the popularization of neutral zone trap by coaches led to the dead puck era.

Off the ice, the NHL struggled to draw the ratings of the other three major sports and received little promotion from ESPN for the games they farmed out to ABC as a time-buy. ESPN also saw significant rating drops for the games aired on cable and prioritized their NBA coverage instead of the NHL.
Gary Bettman knew the league’s future on broadcast television was in doubt and had to figure out a way to get the games on the air, even at no cost. 

By the spring of 2004, NBC Sports held none of the rights to the four major sports after cutting ties with the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball within a five-year span over the price of rights fees.

Following the model of a recent deal with the Arena Football League, where both the network and the league would split the advertising revenue, but pay no rights fee, NBC agreed to a similar deal with the NHL to fill the programming void on weekends.

NBC began their NHL coverage following the lockout in January 2006 and drew critical acclaim for their production, theme music, and the use of talent, such as Mike Emrick, John Davidson, Dave Strader and Chris Cuthbert. 

The network also introduced innovations, such as the shift tracker, which showed how long a star player would spend on the ice, and “Inside the Glass” where former Hartford Whalers head coach Pierre McGuire stood between the benches interviewing players and coaches on both teams.
In subsequent years, NBC upgraded the telecasts with the same graphics used on Sunday Night Football and opted to a nationally televised Game of the Week format involving one of six teams (Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks), to boost ratings and promote promising young stars in Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane.

The Winter Classic, which debuted in 2008, was NBC’s most significant innovation. Taking a page from Canada’s Heritage Classic, the Winter Classic would return hockey to its outdoor roots each New Year’s Day with a game taking place in either a football or baseball stadium.

The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in the inaugural Winter Classic on a Crosby shootout goal in the snow. The game was an instant success, drawing 3.75 million viewers to NBC. The league would later expand on the game’s success with a regular-season Stadium Series of outdoor games and an indoor game on Black Friday.

With the NHL now on stable footing financially, NBC, through its corporate owner Comcast, agreed to a ten year, $200 million deal to continue airing NHL games and rebrand the cable rights holder versus as NBCSN, six years after the channel, then known as OLN, took over the coverage from ESPN. NBC now controlled all US national TV coverage and benefitted from the Stanley Cup dynasties of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings in the early to mid-2010s, which helped attract casual audiences.

The addition of NBCSN enabled the league to feature more teams in the sport and create a weekly event called Wednesday Night Hockey that showcased rivalries. NBCSN later expanded its coverage to Sunday nights and also aired the NHL Draft.

A full weeknight schedule soon followed where they began showing more games on the west coast and promoted a budding rivalry between Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, who played their games in Canada. The addition of more games on the network led to NBC giving opportunities to new on-air talent, including Brendan Burke, A.J. Mleczko and Patrick Sharp. 

Although NBC made a full commitment to NHL coverage on NBCSN during the 2010s, there was a growing sense among hockey fans that the league needed to promote itself beyond its established stars and that the product NBC offered was growing stale with little change during its latter years of tenure.

NBC continued to only air games involving its big market teams on their broadcast teams and began having faceoff times that occurred 25 minutes after the scheduled puck drop to force fans to watch their pregame shows on Sunday afternoons. Golf also took up much of the schedule, forcing NBC to squeeze hockey into weeks that weren’t booked by the PGA Tour.

The COVID-19 pandemic also affected NBC’s coverage with the Stanley Cup Playoffs taking place during the summer and the cup itself awarded in the fall in an arena without fans. 

Though NBC did its best to make this situation work, the rescheduling of the games and competition from other sports resulted in significant rating losses. The 2019-20 Stanley Cup Final was also the last NHL series called by the Hall of Famer Doc Emrick, who paired successfully in the booth with his longtime partner Ed Olczyk.

Working within the parameters of the pandemic, the NHL, along with NBC, attempted to bring an outdoor game to Lake Tahoe and built a hockey arena on the golf course in the backdrop of a picturesque view of trees and mountains.

Two games would take place in February 2021, but faced logistical issues with sunlight, forcing both games to move to NBCSN at night, including suspending the first matchup until midnight on the east coast against the popular Saturday Night Live airing on NBC. The ratings for both games failed to meet initial expectations because of the logistical complications with the area.

Earlier in the year, Comcast announced plans to shutter NBCSN by year’s end, leaving the future of NHL on NBC in doubt. Although there was initial speculation that NBC would renew its rights, the network moved on from hockey by the spring, leaving Disney and Turner to follow its lead.

Though some observers might say that NBC could have done more to promote the sport in later years, one cannot deny the impact they had in committing to hockey back when the league’s future didn’t appear optimistic. Their technical innovations and weekly telecasts gave the league a consistent platform both on cable and broadcast television.

The on-air presentation set a standard for future broadcasts and made the league into a viable property. As the NHL prepares to embark on new endeavors beginning next season, none of it would be possible without the efforts made by NBC or its commitment to the league during its darkest hour.

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