While I've heard just a tiny bit of rumblings about this in recent memory (including forum chatter), mainstream media hasn't really addressed it at length until this week.
According to a July 30th article in the Sports Business Journal, the National Hockey League and ESPN began preliminary talks last month about the possibility of games returning to the network as early as the 2008-2009 season.
Even though the league is two seasons removed from a devastating lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-2005 campaign, it should be interesting to see if the NHL is able to strengthen their fallen profile on the American sports landscape with a more lucrative television contract than what they previously agreed to. After the NHL and ESPN parted ways three years ago, the league signed a revenue-sharing broadcast television deal with NBC and a $70 million per season deal with new cable television partner Versus (formerly OLN). As it stands entering the upcoming 2007-2008 season, Comcast-owned Versus holds exclusive cable TV rights for NHL games through 2011. There would likely have to be a re-negotiation of that contract if ESPN re-enters as a part of any new deal.
At the same time, one factor that leads to this speculation of what the future holds for NHL games on American cable and broadcast TV would be that NBC is undecided if they will pick up their option on their rights to nationally televise games in 2008-2009. The Sports Business Journal mentions NBC's poor ratings for their two seasons in broadcasting NHL games. If NBC declines to exercise their option year and the NHL signs a new deal with ESPN, then games would back on ABC for over-the-air television.
The Globe and Mail in Toronto mentions that NBC has dropped Bill Clement and Ray Ferraro from their in-studio team. No word yet on who will replace them. Brett Hull left as the Dallas Stars hired him to be the team's advisor to their hockey operations department. Pierre McGuire's role on NBC will increase for the upcoming season. Will this shift in on-air personalities be a sign of things to come? Only time will tell.
The question is if the NHL returns to let's say ESPN 2, I wonder if that means Barry Melrose, John Buccigross, Bill Pidto, Darren Pang (perhaps part-time since he's the Phoenix Coyotes' color analyst), Brian Engblom, Steve Levy, Gary Thorne and Clement all return to cover the NHL there. Engblom is right now in studio at Versus as is the case with Clement. Thorne is doing play-by-play announcing for the Baltimore Orioles, but I'm confident that the chance to do hockey again won't stop him. I really hope if NHL games do return to ESPN 2, we see the re-birth of NHL 2Night, dependent on what I'm about to talk about next.
Regardless of whether or not NHL games are back on ESPN and ABC, there is hope that an American version of the NHL Network will indeed launch this fall. I'd rather see it available on a basic cable tier or I can just pay the extra fee per month. I have Cablevision as my provider and I don't even get NFL Network. But at least I have NBA TV.
I wonder if the NHL is able to pull a multi-network deal reminiscent of the NBA and NFL. There is no way it'll ever be in the same stratosphere as potentially lucrative as the NFL, but it would be more beneficial than as a liability, in my opinion. I'm happy with the progress Versus is making, but more exposure especially on cable is needed. ESPN is available on basic cable in 92 million homes while Versus has 71 million and on most cable systems have it buried on a premium sports tier. The NHL has the new CBA, now it's time for the league to deliver its promise to rebuild their standing in American sports.
This story and the developments from it should get interesting in the months to come.