Hockey and ESPN. At long last, a nearly 17 year hiatus has come to an end, as The Walt Disney Company announced a 7-year rights agreement with the NHL. Disney (owner of both ESPN and ABC) will use its networks to air 25 regular games each season under the deal. In addition, The House of Mouse will air one Conference Final Series each season, 4 Stanley Cup Series in the 7-year span, and feature a slew of regular season games exclusively on ESPN+ and Hulu.
And in the spirit of the seemingly unlikeliest of reunions, I want to take a trip down memory lane, and remind us all just how long it’s been since “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” aired an NHL contest.
The last NHL broadcast for ESPN happened in June 2004.
ESPN and ABC split duties airing the Stanley Cup Finals between the Calgary Flames, and eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The broadcast featured legendary commentators Gary Thorne and Bill Clement. Today, most younger fans might only be familiar with the pair’s work as commentators in the EA’s NHL video game series, but these guys were some of the best in the business calling live games. For the record, no on-air talent has been announced for ESPN’s hockey coverage reboot (not to get any hopes up, but apparently Thorne might be interested in coming back).
A Look Back
Now, 2004 was a long time ago, especially in the hockey world. Here are just a few reminders of what has happened since, and how the game and the league have changed.
There are currently only 9 players still active in the NHL who were playing in the 2003-04 season, the last in which ESPN broadcast games. The old timers include Zdeno Chara, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Ryan Kesler, Patrice Bergeron, Brent Burns, Dustin Brown, and Eric Staal.
There are dozens of current NHL players who are too young to have likely ever watched an NHL game on ESPN. Over 30 players 20 years old and younger have played in an NHL game this season. That’s right, folks. We’re talking players born in 2001 or later.
Guys have had long, successful careers within that time. Brent Seabrook, Matt Niskanen, Adam McQuaid, and Alex Steen all began and ended long playing careers since ESPN last showed an NHL game.
The last time ESPN aired an NHL game (June 2004), the Billboard Number One song was “The Reason” by Hoobastank. I just needed to throw that in here. We had also just gotten the third installment in the Harry Potter film franchise, and were a couple weeks away from the premiere of the endlessly quotable “Dodgeball“.
On a sadder note, we were also were mere months away from the beginning of the only season-long lockout in the history of the NHL, which cost us the entirety of the 2004-05 season.
And back when ESPN was broadcasting the NHL, games could end in ties. The introduction of the shootout tie-breaker at the end of overtime came in 2005, following the lockout.
The league also had not yet gotten rid of the dumbest rule in hockey: the two-line pass. And that’s not all. In 2005, the league also introduced the restricted areas where goalies could possess the puck, and the rule that prevented a team from a making line change following an icing committed by their team. But all had yet to go into effect when ESPN was still doing hockey games.
A bunch of teams have changed names or locations since ESPN stopped doing hockey. The Ducks are no longer “Mighty”, the Coyotes go by Arizona as opposed to Phoenix, The Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, and we saw the birth of the Vegas Golden Knights. And by the time ESPN is back up and running with the NHL, they will have yet another new team to cover.
Finally, for those of you hockey fans in your late 20s and older, you may wax nostalgic at the return of the classic ESPN theme music for NHL coverage. It’s back baby.
And one final note before wrapping this up.
Hockey on ESPN is a good thing.
I know ESPN took a lot of crap over the years (and rightfully so) for lackluster NHL coverage. But this partnership is a huge step forward for both parties involved. ESPN will help the NHL reach new and younger audiences. So let’s let bygones be bygones, celebrate this marriage, and blast the ESPN National Hockey Night theme song.
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