The Demise of the NHL Coverage by ESPN

Here we are, only a scant few days from the start of the Stanley Cup Finals…and ESPN’s top writer (after their giant purge a few weeks ago) has left the company.

On a Facebook post, Craig Custance announced that he is leaving ESPN for reasons he did not disclose at this time. With the firings of Pierre LeBrun, Scott Burnside, Joe McDonald, and the possible exit of John Buccigross when his contract is up in July, the hockey department has been pretty much gutted at the “Worldwide Leader.” While they still have Linda Cohn and Barry Melrose on the TV, as well as Corey Pronman on the dot-com side; the hit that hockey’s coverage has taken is making it look like ESPN will go strictly to wire results for the NHL starting next season.

Now, I’m sure Custance will land on his feet as a hockey writer because he’s a tremendous reporter and he will be very sought after. However, you have to figure that the pro hockey “takes” are dead to ESPN, if it hadn’t been before.

The NHL and ESPN have always had a sort of odd pairing together. Most people like to remember how the NHL was replaced by poker at the beginning of the 2000s, which was the end of the contract the league had with ESPN, but before then– the NHL was soundly put at the forefront, especially when ESPN2 was created. There were games mostly every night on “The Deuce” and there was plenty to be taken from. Sure, there were plenty of Red Wings or Flyers or Penguins games– but you had a smattering of Sharks and Kings games thrown in. Hell, when the NHL was locked out in 1994, ESPN liked the idea of hockey on The Deuce, they got a deal with the IHL to show games on the network– huge for the minor league industry and good for ESPN to keep their hockey fan base happy without the NHL around.

Many fans still feel that ESPN gave the NHL a hard time when it came to coverage, and I could see why they thought that– especially when ESPN took a jilted lover approach to their coverage after the NHL went to the NBC family of networks. That said, I could see ESPN’s reasoning for not giving it coverage because it didn’t value hockey due sagging ratings by fans not tuning into games. After that, ESPN had hockey of the NCAA variety, but only during the Frozen Four and recently, select games on ESPNU.

Even when you look at the coverage that ESPN put out for the World Cup of Hockey, which seemed as if they had one guy in the arena doing the between-the-bench schtick, while the play-by-play staff was calling it from the studio in Bristol. ESPN thought they could make something of the WCH, but in the end– it was same lackluster performance they had put out there from the last time they had pro hockey coverage.

In this day in age, the need for the NHL to have coverage on ESPN is not as desirable as it was a decade ago. People consume sports differently, especially on social media and with the leagues having highlights on-demand. That kills the need for highlight shows or to even be home to watch the game thanks to streaming services and everyone being connected to the internet.

The NHL, and hockey fans for that matter, don’t need ESPN as much as they used to– but the end result is a lot of talented people having to look elsewhere for work because ESPN sees how little traffic it gets and how little revenue they are generating from cutting the cords. That’s the nature of the business these days, sadly.

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