Random Cities: John Buccigross

Puck the Media’s bi-weekly feature, Random Cities, takes you inside the world of broadcasting from an angle you might not have seen before. We take each personality through various cities that have impacted their life and/or career, and let them elaborate with stories and memories about each. Enjoy.

This Week’s Subject: John Buccigross. He is in his 15th year with ESPN, six of which were spent hosting the seminal, Emmy-nominated NHL 2Nite.

City #1: Bristol, Connecticut

John Buccigross: Did a Sportscenter commercial with Wayne Gretzky, met and became friends with Ray Bourque, Barry Melrose, Darren Pang, Pat Verbeek, and close friends with Ray “Chicken Parm” Ferraro. The Sportsnation show is now taped in the old NHL 2Nite studio. Sometimes I will walk in there when nobody else is there and gently sob.

Steve Lepore: Do you have a particular favorite story from the NHL 2Nite days? 

JB: Probably the night we followed the Flyers-Penguins 5 OT game and, as we were doing our post game show, I forgot who had just played – my brain was so fried.

SL: What do you think shows like NHL Overtime and On the Fly could do to improve this season? Is it victory enough that we’re back to having hockey highlights on TV every night?

JB: Have me, Melrose and Ferraro do the show! It’s never been a better time to be a hardcore hockey fan for highlights and discussion and information. If you have NHL Network, a working computer, Versus, and Satellite Radio you have zero to complain about.

City #2: Pittsburgh, PA

JB: Pittsburgh is where me and two buddies “borrowed” one of our parents cars, drove to Pittsburgh, bought 1 ticket from a scalper, gave it to a dude who opened a side door to the Civic Arena and we snuck in to watch a Penguins-Minnesota North Star game. On the way home to Ohio we paid for gas with 3 rolls of pennies.

City #3: Columbus, OH

JB: I attended the first game in Columbus Blue Jackets history and then-Blue Jacket beat writer Michael Arace – now a singular Dispatch columnist – bequeathed me the duty of handing out the first “Three Stars” in Columbus history. The first #1 star in Blue Jacket history? The Blackhawks Rito Von Arx. Or Tony Amonte. One of the two.

SL: Would winning cure all in that city? Do you think it could become similar to a Buffalo or a San Jose, a market where there’s a solid enough cult of diehards to sustain the franchise?

JB: Columbus is a terrific sports city with plenty of people that would perform just as well as Buffalo and San Jose if they were able to construct a relevant NHL franchise. Lots of corporations and the only official pro game in town. Poor management and poor player personnel decisions have put them in the danger zone. They’ve just never had people in place with a good feel on how to pick and choose people. I’m not convinced they are close. They better be better, but better is not enough. The city will embrace a winner. Big time.

City #4: Anaheim, CA

JB: Game 6, Paul Kariya gets knocked out by Scott Stevens. He comes back and scores. I interviewed him after the game for Sportscenter. I wore an orange tie that night. I still have it, and whenever I wear it, I think of Anaheim, 2003.

City #5: St. Paul, MN

JB: 2004: All Star Game. The first time I interviewed/met Mark Messier. The palpable energy he emits in person is overwhelming. He was a mental volcano.

SL: That seems like the last time the NHL All-Star Game was at all creative, entertainment-wise. Barenaked Ladies played outside pre-game, the Skills Competition was still exciting, and the jerseys were rad. Can the All-Star Game still matter?

JB: That was the last All Star Game I’ve been to so I can’t compare it. It was great, though. You forgot Cheap Trick at the Metrodome.

City #6: Tampa Bay, FL

JB: I’m in the locker room with a CBC camerman and reporter and an RDS camerman and reporter following Game 7. Just the six of us. It would be the last game before the NHL lockout and the last NHL game ESPN would produce until at least the year 2022. In walks Dave Andreychuk with the Stanley Cup as we hear the crowd screaming above. The Lightning captain plops down the Cup down in my middle of the Lightning dressing room. And leaves. Silence. Awe. Goosebumps. The End.

SL: You mention it being the final ESPN game. Now, ESPN had a contract for next season, but we all knew the lockout was looming large, was there a sense for the ESPN folks that this might be the end of an era?

JB: I do not recall a sense that this was it for hockey at ESPN. But there were signs from the Executive Tower, with Mark Shapiro’s evangelist personality in place, that things were changing, that the NHL/ESPN era was changing fast. NHL 2Nite, the first ESPN2 show nominated for an Emmy, was no longer a nightly show. It was only on after ESPN2 games.

The culture at ESPN at that time was different than it was before and the way it is now. The NBA was now a partner, which has turned out to be an excellent decision-I believe it helped diversify ESPN. The NFL was continuing to be a mushroom cloud of cash and success and Shapiro was thinking big outside the batter’s box- movies, cell phones, Hollywood-and he clearly felt the NHL was a drag compared to the 120 million dollar rights fees – which it was at the time. Low scoring, slow games, lacking speed, youth, and skill.

But Shapiro didn’t see the potential. He didn’t know who Sidney Crosby was. Or Alex Ovechkin. Or Evgeni Malkin. He should have asked me. I could have told him after the lockout there would be an infusion of youth, no more hooking, and shootouts. But he torched the NHL relationship and then he quit ESPN and that was that.

I think that Shapiro era, however, was necessary in terms of expanding the vision of ESPN, creating as much of an edge a corporation can engineer, and energizing this incredibly successful company with youth and energy. It took a long time to get a gym here. The cafeteria was two vending machines when I arrived here. Now the cafeteria is immaculate and diverse. The campus was bland and sloppy. Now the grounds are immaculate and it’s like working at a sports amusement park. Maybe that would have happened anyway, but Shapiro was energetic, in shape, dressed well, and had a production backround with success so he did, in my opinion, make a contribution with his energy. I wasn’t in negotiating rooms so maybe others have either a more positive or negative view of him

I also think the era was useful in understanding our DNA to make better business decisions as a network like John Skipper’s recommendation of heavily investing in World Cup soccer. I put our South Africa World Cup production against any Super Bowl. It reminded me of CBC’s NHL coverage and that made me really proud. Nobody produces live events right now like ESPN. We keep getting better in that regard. I would love to see us do an NHL hockey game right now.

I believe ESPN executive team now is by and large, terrific. Great people and great minds led by the cool and classy George Bodenheimer, our President. That dude is legit. If you can’t do a deal with him, you can’t do a deal. He actually would make a great commissioner of a sport as well. There is nothing worse than working for people you don’t respect and that, with very few exceptions, is not the case at ESPN.

ESPN is a terrific place to work. The company continues to grow and add jobs. It still has a pension, a 401K, and free Disney passes. The core group of people are smart, passionate, and hard working. End of story.

But, back to the NHL in 2004 and its relationship with ESPN. Simply put, while the NHL Executive staff was always and is great to work with, there were NHL teams, mostly the successful or large market, that were absolutely atrocious to deal with. Arrogant, old thinking, lazy, and/or rude. We would have to beg and plead to get the most elementary of requests. I did multiple LA Kings stories because they were so great to deal with and so forward thinking. Individual owners and Board of Governor members were dragging the sport down.

In-game interviews with coaches and players? We would have been stabbed in the neck if we made that request. It was probably a combination of Shapiro pushing hard, too hard in spots, and the NHL being behind the times in 2004 in terms of how the league, starting with the owners, thought about the game and marketing it.

Clearly, that has changed for the better. The lockout reset the egos and the fan is better off for it. The NHL has an excellent website, an excellent NHL Network, and teams with 21st Century PR staffs. Not having them as a partner at ESPN has been a void for me, and I think the network, but with Melrose still here and my ESPN.com blogumn/vlogumn going on its 11th year, I still feel connected.

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About stevelepore
Steve Lepore is the Managing Editor of Puck the Media. His work has been featured in The Hockey News. Feel free to contact him at stevemlepore@gmail.com

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