ESPN National Hockey Night was ESPN's weekly television broadcasts of National Hockey League regular season games and coverage of playoff games, broadcast from 1992 to 2004. ESPN had been slated to broadcast games for the 2004–05 NHL season, but the season's cancellation combined with the NHL reaching an agreement with OLN (now Versus) to broadcast games for the 2005–06 NHL season effectively ended National Hockey Night after the 2003–04 NHL season.
1979–1982 and 1985–1988Edit
ESPN initially covered the NHL during the 1979–80, 1980–81 and 1981–82 seasons by making deals with individual teams. This included eleven Hartford Whalers home broadcasts in 1980–81 and 25 the following year. During this time, USA also broadcast National Hockey League games. In order to prevent overexposure, the NHL decided to grant only one network exclusive rights. In April 1982, USA outbid ESPN for the NHL's American national television cable package ($8 million for 2 years). In 1984, the NHL asked ESPN for a bid, but then gave USA the right to match it, which it did.
ESPN initially and previously covered the NHL from 1980–82. They had a rather limited slate of games, which were all broadcast from U.S. arenas: Hartford, Washington, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Minnesota, St. Louis and Colorado in 1980–81 and New York Islanders (while deleting Hartford) in 1981–82. ESPN covered a selected amount of playoff games in 1982. They covered Game 4 of New York Islanders-Pittsburgh series and Game 2 of the Minnesota-Chicago series. Sam Rosen and Pete Stemkowski were the announcers for both games.
After the 1984–85 season, the NHL Board of Governors chose to have USA and ESPN submit sealed bids. ESPN won by bidding nearly $25 million for 3 years, about twice as much as USA had been paying. The contract called for aired approximately 33 weekly (Sundays at 7:30 p.m. ET), nationally televised (subject to blackout) regular season games a year (as well as the All-Star Game and entire Stanley Cup Finals). The network chose Dan Kelly and Sam Rosen to be the network's first play-by-play announcers, Mickey Redmond and Brad Park were selected to be the color commentators; Tom Mees was chosen to serve as studio host, while Jim Kelly was chosen to served as the reporter. ESPN designated Sundays as Sunday Night Hockey, but also aired select midweek telecasts. ESPN aired its first game, an opening-night matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, on October 10, 1985.
From its debut in 1992 until the 2001–02 NHL season, weekly regular season games were broadcast on Sundays (between NFL and baseball seasons), Wednesdays, and Fridays, and were titled Sunday/Wednesday/Friday Night Hockey. Prior to the 1999, these telecasts were non-exclusive, meaning they were blacked out in the regions of the competing teams, and an alternate game was shown in these affected areas. Beginning in 1999–2000 season, ESPN was permitted two exclusive telecasts per team per season.
When ESPN started broadcasting NBA games on Wednesday and Friday nights in 2002, the weekly hockey broadcasts were moved to Thursday and the broadcasts renamed to Thursday Night Hockey. Beginning in 1993–94, up to 5 games per week were also shown on ESPN2 known as "Fire on Ice."
During the Stanley Cup playoffs, ESPN and ESPN2 provided almost nightly coverage, often carrying games on both channels simultaneously. Games in the first 2 rounds were non-exclusive, while telecasts in the Conference Finals and Finals were exclusive (except in 1993 and 1994).
OLN/Versus replaces ESPNEdit
Before the 2004–05 lockout, the NHL had reached two separate deals with NBC and ESPN. ESPN offered NHL $60 million for about 40 games (15 of 40 games would be during the regular season), all on ESPN2, with presumably, only some midweek playoff games, the first 2 games of the Stanley Cup Final and the All-Star Game airing on ESPN. The NBC deal stipulated that the network would pay the league no rights fees - an unheard of practice to that point. NBC's deal included six regular season windows, 7 postseason broadcasts and Games 3–7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in prime-time.
ESPN had a 2 year deal that they opted out of after the lockout, leaving NHL without a cable partner. In August 2005, Comcast (who owns the Philadelphia Flyers) paid $70 million a year for three years to put games (54 or more NHL games each season under the agreement, generally on Monday and Tuesday nights) on the OLN network, now known as Versus. Due to the abbreviated off-season, the 2005–06 schedule did not offer OLN exclusivity, which they received in 2006–07. Versus will also cover the playoffs and will exclusively air Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the consequence was that except for 2006-2008 when NBC televise Games 3-7. Perhaps, Games 1, 2, and 5-7 will always televise on NBC, and Games 3-4 televise on Versus and NBCSN.
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