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A return of NHL hockey to ESPN gives staffers goosebumps

Linda Cohn on the set of In The

Linda Cohn on the set of In The Crease. Credit: Allen Kee / ESPN Images

Linda Cohn knew that Jimmy Pitaro was a hockey fan who grew up rooting for the Rangers, so when he visited employees in Los Angeles after being named president of ESPN in 2018, she was hopeful.

"Then one of the first questions that was asked in this town hall meeting was, ‘Which property would you love to see ESPN get?’" Cohn recalled in an interview with Newsday.

"He didn’t even blink. He didn’t even pause. He said, ‘The NHL rights,’ and he went on from there, and it was like, I got goosebumps. I’m serious. I got chills — positive chills. That’s when I believed it was going to happen."

It did, in the form of an announcement in March of a seven-year rights deal that was followed in April by a deal with Turner for the rest of the NHL’s national rights in the United States.

Much about the ESPN contract is a radical departure from the NHL’s 16-year run on NBC, most notably the fact 75 games will stream exclusively on ESPN+ or Hulu.

That means that six Islanders and four Rangers games will be unavailable for home viewing for those who do not subscribe to one of those services as ESPN continues to build its digital arm.

The NHL will get more than $600 million per season from its two American TV partners, and the league expected both to promote the sport as they do others in their rights portfolios.

But beyond that, the new deal hit home on a personal level to many longtime ESPN employees who are hockey fans and never got over the network ceding the NHL to NBC in the mid-2000s.

That includes Cohn, a Newfield High alumnus who was a goaltender at SUNY-Oswego and since 2018 has hosted a hockey show called "In the Crease" on ESPN+.

"I kept the light on for the NHL [at ESPN]," she said, laughing.

Now it is a spotlight, and she has plenty of company as her network gears up to show off its new toy.

"I can’t wait to see how it all plays out," she said. "It’s going to be a super-duper wake-up call for the average hockey fan and the young hockey fan who doesn’t remember the last time it was on ESPN."

Steve Levy, a fellow Long Islander and fellow Oswego alumnus, said, "As one of the longstanding hockey-loving members of ESPN, Tuesday night will be an emotional night for me. I remember how emotional it was when we lost hockey the last time. So being on both sides of that has really been quite an emotional rollercoaster."

Levy and analyst Barry Melrose covered the Stanley Cup Final even when ESPN did not have rights to show it. Now they will be part of a large team.

The Finals in 2022, ’24, ’26 and ’28 will be on ABC, and TNT has the event in odd-numbered years.

Sean McDonough will be the lead play-by-play man for ESPN. Rangers radio announcer Kenny Albert is TNT’s lead play-by-play man, and its No. 2 team features Islanders TV announcer Brendan Burke.

The NHL naturally wants both partners to succeed, and so do ESPN and Turner, although there figures to be a friendly rivalry between the two.

"They’re going to a great job, and we’re going to try to do a greater job," Turner analyst Ed Olczyk said. "It’s great for the game."

While many announcers on both networks are veterans of NBC’s hockey crew, McDonough mostly is known nationally for his work on other sports.

Not to worry. He is another hockey true believer. He recalled growing up in Boston in the 1960s, "like every other kid on my block wanting to be Bobby Orr. I have been a passionate hockey fan my whole life."

McDonough, a close friend of former Rangers coach David Quinn, first called college hockey for NESN in Boston in the fall of 1984, when he was fresh out of Syracuse University.

ESPN and Turner hope to make splashes in their studios, too, with the former hiring Mark Messier as an analyst and the latter signing Wayne Gretzky.

Hockey broadcasters and fans understand they are in the minority in the U.S., which tends to make them more protective of the sport — and more eager to promote and protect it.

That came across loudly on a series of promotional news conferences ESPN and Turner conducted to spread the word.

Said ESPN analyst Brian Boucher, "I grew up watching NHL hockey on ESPN, and for me this is surreal."

Cohn said the new contract has "lit the fire" for even casual hockey fans at ESPN. "Honestly, if they’re not into it, they better get into it and realize the difference between Connor McDavid and David Pastrnak," she said.

In addition to "In the Crease," Cohn has a hockey podcast with Emily Kaplan and will work occasional games as an intermission reporter. For Friday’s Wild-Ducks game she will report from between the benches.

"I’m really pumped up for that," she said. "If you would ask me, what are you personally most excited for, what challenge, there’s no question, hands down, it’s going to be between the benches in Anaheim."

Cohn sought advice from fellow goaltender Boucher, who did that job for NBC.

"To have at this stage of my career a role that I would get butterflies over, that’s pretty cool," she said. "I’ll have to remind myself and pinch myself and say, ‘Linda, you’re not a spectator here. You actually have to work.’"

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