NBC’s coverage of the NHL ends after the Stanley Cup finals, but its impact on how the game is broadcast will carry on due to its different innovations in 15 years.
The network’s coverage could conclude as soon as Monday night if the Tampa Bay Lightning complete a four-game sweep of the Montreal Canadiens.
“I think when the history books are written on the NBC era with the NHL over the last 15 years, the entire network has so much to be proud of,” play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert said.
NBC has added many technical innovations, but its most pronounced is having an analyst positioned inside the glass and between both team benches.
“Over in Sochi, they had three inside the glass positions between the benches during the Olympic tournament, and that made us all smile knowing that we had taken this concept from a board room at the NHL to the industry standard and the international standard, which was really gratifying,” NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said. “We do think it’s changed the way people watch the game of hockey and consume it.”
Flood said there was initial pushback on having a reporter between the benches until there was a meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly before the start of NBC’s first season in 2005.
“Gary looked at me and said, ‘Sam what do you guys need on the production side? What can I do for you?’ I had been told by the NHL operations people they weren’t going to allow it to happen,” Flood said. “I said to Gary, ‘We need the position inside the glass between the two benches. Here’s what the role is and you’re going to think it can change the game of hockey.’ And he said, ‘I see not issue with that. Let’s get this done.’ And that is a statement about what the league believed in us and allowed us to do what we needed to do,” Flood said. “From that point on I knew Gary was going to be a partner who looked out for our needs and the league’s needs.”
Pierre McGuire has been a mainstay between the benches, but it has helped other former players into broadcasting. Albert estimated that it has added 50 broadcast jobs around the league since some regional networks have added it to their coverage.
Former goaltender Brian Boucher, who has been an inside the glass reporter for NBC since 2015 and will be part of ESPN’s lead broadcast team when their coverage begins in October, said there are things missed at ice level due to the speed of the game, but that a three-person broadcast adds a lot.
“You get a different feel down at ice level for the temperature of the game, the speed of the game. Sometimes you hear things that you would not hear when you’re upstairs,” he said. “You also get a different perspective downstairs and maybe the angles where there’s traffic in front of the net or the angle coming down my side of the ice that I see, that the goalie would see and that the benches see. I think those are valuable things to highlight.”
NBC found out this was going to be their final season in April, after the NHL finalized seven-year deals with ESPN/ABC and Turner Sports. Flood and coordinating producer John McGuinness have been adamant that the quality of the broadcasts would not suffer.
NBC’s coverage of the NHL was supposed to begin in January of 2005, but the season was cancelled due to the lockout. It also morphed from a revenue-sharing deal with no rights fees paid to NBC and the league agreeing to a 10-year, $2 billion rights agreement in April of 2011. The network’s coverage expanded to cable that year when Comcast acquired a majority stake in NBC Universal and merged Versus (which would later be rebranded NBC Sports Network) into the sports division’s operations.
NBC growing the game’s popularity through its extensive coverage of the playoffs, the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day and advocating for the All-Star game to switch to a three-on-three format, are a driving reason why the upcoming seven-year contracts with ESPN/ABC and Turner Sports will add a combined $4.37 billion to the league’s coffers.
The NHL this season received $350 million in broadcast revenue from NBC ($250 million) and Disney Streaming Services ($100 million for digital rights). The upcoming deals will average $625 million a year ($400 million from Disney and $225 million from Turner).
“There’s a lot of things that we did sort of did behind the scenes, just with different camera angles and replays and super slow-mos and X-mos and trying to use the technology as much as we could. We had drones out at the outdoor game in Lake Tahoe,” McGuinness said. “Personally, I wish ESPN and Turner success. And hopefully they’ll push the envelope even further and make the games more enjoyable.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this story.