Hockey East is officially moving to ESPN, one of the biggest stages in the sports broadcasting world. Starting next season, both the men’s and women’s league will join the NHL on the branded “Home of Hockey,” heightening exposure for both the college sport and its players.
The two groups unveiled a six-year media rights deal Wednesday, which will change the way people watch college hockey and expand the product to a market of NHL fans.
After ESPN signed a seven-year streaming contract with the NHL in March 2021, the network has been trying to establish itself as the go-to spot for hockey fanatics. Pulling in one of the top conferences in college hockey to its platform will only bolster their plan.
According to a statement from the league, games will be primarily streamed on ESPN+ with three games throughout the year also aired on ESPNU.
The agreement has multiple implications for Hockey East — many encouraging, but some bittersweet. Starting with the positives, this deal will be huge for growing collegiate viewership and highlighting hockey’s young talent before players enter the bright lights of the NHL.
The average NHL fan isn’t paying much attention to their team’s recruits or draft picks when the regular season is on. It’s only once the college guys are brought up to the AHL or take their solo rookie pregame lap that their names start to be recognized.
Now, as fans plop down on their couch with a jersey on to watch their team with pride and some potato chips in a bowl nearby, they could catch the last ten minutes of a Battle of Comm. Ave. or see the end of another exciting matchup. This exposure would automatically draw them more into a league other than the NHL.
College hockey lacks the following and craze that sports like basketball have at the lower level. March Madness dominated the sports world this past month, but when I mentioned the Frozen Four, which is being held in Boston this year, to a friend, it was the first they heard of an NCAA tournament for hockey.
In my opinion, some of the college games played this postseason have been far more entertaining than any Devils vs. Coyotes-esque matchups in the pros. The heart and grit these young athletes play with reminds viewers of the greatness of the game and makes you fall in love with the sport all over again.
The exposure will also be pivotal for the women’s hockey world. I could write an entirely separate article about the discrepancies in coverage, funding and appreciation for the womens’ teams, but I’ll save that for another week.
This is a step in the right direction of pushing the conversation around women’s hockey to the forefront and exhibiting the dynamic skill seen in each and every one of their games.
Although there are professional women’s leagues, they’re nowhere close to the NHL in terms of prominence, so college tends to be the time to shine for most of these players. Receiving coverage from the same network as the NHL will start to give credit where it’s due for these women athletes.
With all of these gains, there’s also going to be the inevitable loss of local coverage and the beloved hometown announcers. One of the best parts of a Hockey East game is watching the teams battle while the heavy Massachusetts accents of the broadcasters list stats, facts and anecdotes about the squads they’ve been covering for decades.
NESN will still cover games that will be streamed on ESPN+, but the plan for local team announcers as a whole is a bit unclear. They’re a core part of the collegiate sport and it would be a shame to completely lose that aspect of the game.
In all, though, I’m excited for more people to lean into the thrill of college hockey and appreciate the NHL’s next stars at their origin.