It’d be hard to tell you that I saw the events that took place this weekend coming. Every headline that kept coming in was a bigger surprise than the one that preceded it. The NHL TV landscape in the United States has appeared to have been drastically altered in the wake of the NBC/Comcast merger, so now – as those two companies came together – the two networks that broadcast hockey will also come together, providing hockey fans with more of a universal telecast quality (regardless of whether you like that quality or not) for all of it’s games, turning the NHL on VERSUS and the NHL on NBC into properties akin to when you see ESPN broadcast as “ESPN on ABC”. It’s uncharted territory for us all, including your humble blogger.
I gotta say, while it was explained why Bob Harwood and all the other VERSUS “sideline” reporters were let go, I understood what Sam Flood (who now appears to be running the show, hockey-wise, with an iron fist) was doing. He invented “Inside the Glass” and he wanted it featured on every one of the telecasts he oversaw. Still, I wonder why Harwood, who’s an experienced reporter and has been covering the NHL for six years now, couldn’t have been given a shot at that gig. Maybe he didn’t want to, maybe the network wants former players. Either way, I was kind of surprised to see Harwood let go over anyone else. If ESPN gets a piece of hockey in the new contract, they’d be very foolish not to bring him in. More on ESPN later.
I was even more surprised that a guy like Beninati was fired as well. Think of his broadcasting ability what you will, there’s little sign that he was the kind of guy VERSUS would be sweeping out. He’s a Comcast employee, and a main voice of two of their major properties if you include his work on college football. I’m very surprised that any of this is happening, but getting rid of the network’s #2 play-by-play man is pretty radical stuff. As Beninati is an ESPN freelancer for their lacrosse telecasts, it wouldn’t shock the logically thinking man that he’d find some work there if they got back into the NHL, as he worked select ESPN games back before the lockout.
Now, I keep bringing up ESPN. Some folks have seen all these moves, incorrectly in my opinion, as NBC and VERSUS “cutting back” in anticipation of losing the hockey contract. From my perspective, anyone who says that is way off base. I don’t think there’s any chance on earth of ESPN taking back the entire NHL TV contract, and the NHL has to know they would be foolish to do so. Dick Ebersol, the President of the NBC Sports Group, is a smart man. I think he knows that it’ll be almost impossible for other leagues to look at VERSUS as a legitimate contender for major league sports contracts if VERSUS can’t even hold on to the one they have. Can you imagine VERSUS trying to program weekly without the NHL? Scary stuff.
I also think he’s found a way to make money on hockey for the past six years at NBC, and knows that he was getting a bargain, and will probably have to sink a little bit more in on that side in the next deal. I think both sides know, however, that they’d be very stupid to part ways. ESPN doesn’t have nearly the time and space to accommodate what VERSUS can. Sure, the NBA and NFL having impending labor troubles would get the NHL on the Mothership a lot early on, but those leagues would not be gone forever. The NHL would likely just be used as the starting point for turning ESPNNews or ESPNU into ESPN 3.
So please, do not look into this as VERSUS/NBC trying to cut back on things. Sure, it appears that people are being fired, but it’s clear that new people are being hired in their place. It’ll be very interesting to see where things go from here. For now, what we know is that VERSUS will broadcast the NY Rangers-Detroit game with Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuire beginning their tenure as the #1 NHL broadcast team on both network and cable television. We’ll have the same men calling every game of the Final on American TV for only the second time since 1994. The next night, Brian Engblom will be inside the glass for Buffalo-Tampa Bay. Rick Peckham and Daryl Reaugh were originally scheduled to call that game, too, but we’ll find out soon enough whether or not that has changed.
VERSUS is, for all intents and purposes, a new network again. Reset your expectations for a little while. While VERSUS kept growing and growing and getting better and better, it’s hard to say that they were ever going to achieve something perfect with the way they were doing hockey. I wonder if Sam Flood felt that way as well and decided, instead of waiting to make wholesale changes in the off-season, why not blow it up now and have things the way you want them in time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Once again, were in uncharted waters, and we have to expect things to be different for a little while.
I’m going to hold off on reviewing the NHL on VERSUS’ new style for a couple weeks, and even a little longer for what I assume will be a changed NHL Overtime. For now, please use the announcer/open threads as useful tools to point out what you like and don’t like, as they’ll be very helpful and inform my own opinions as far as how the game production is reviewed. Let’s give VERSUS and NBC a clean slate … for a little while. Remember, The NHL On OLN started up in six weeks. The NHL On VERSUS is getting a massive reboot in the span of one. It’s a mighty impressive undertaking. Let’s wait and see how it turns out.