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Good Evening

NHL, MLB networking successfully in Secaucus

The NHL Tonight show features Tony Luftman, Kevin

The NHL Tonight show features Tony Luftman, Kevin Weekes and guest analyst Brian Gionta. Credit: NHL Network

SECAUCUS, N.J. — Brian Kenny grew up in Levittown, attended the Islanders’ Stanley Cup parades and was “thrilled” to interview his hockey heroes as a college reporter at New York Tech when they practiced at Cantiague Park in the early 1980s.

“Bryan Trottier would skate right up to you, and Bobby Ny strom would skate right up to you,” he said. “I covered all those guys as a punk kid reporter in a nylon suit knowing nothing. That was my first exposure to professional sports.”

So, yes, he likes and appreciates hockey. But all of that seemed to be in the past for a guy who since 2011, when he left ESPN for the MLB Network, has been all baseball, all the time.

Until . . . “culture shock,” as he called it.

Last August the NHL announced a six-year partnership with MLB Advanced Media through which MLBAM secured the NHL’s digital rights. In the process it also created a television odd couple that Dave Patterson, senior vice president of production, called “definitely unique, unusual, all those cool words.”

The NHL Network, which had been based in Toronto, moved here to share two buildings, some studios, offices and even a cafeteria with the MLB Network, which launched in 2009.

“We were so baseball-centric,” Kenny said. “Then suddenly you walk in the first time and you see at the desk where reception area is that a hockey game is on. You’re like: ‘What’s this?!’ ”

It’s hockey! The United States’ national pastime meets Canada’s. What could possibly go wrong?

So far not much, according to seemingly everyone involved, even as this spring has stretched the muscles of both ends of the operation, with baseball in full swing and the NHL playoffs deep into the second round.

The networks share their top executives, and many of the NHL Network types moved over from the baseball side, often for the love of hockey.

That was the case for Josh Bernstein, senior coordinating producer of the NHL Network. He is a graduate of Bethpage High School, and for two years he overlapped at Hofstra with Lightning coach Jon Cooper, currently engaged in a second-round playoff series against Bernstein’s first hockey love.

His family had season tickets to Islanders games from their inaugural season of 1972-73.

“I have a lot of hockey in my blood,” Bernstein said. “So when the network joined us here it was very exciting for me to move over from baseball to hockey.”

Bernstein said the goal has been to model the NHL side on the MLB side in terms of process and quality, but to give the hockey network its own feel.

“Hockey happens in spurts, where there’s wild action and then it’s quiet for a little bit,” he said. “In baseball it’s more pastoral, a slower game, so how you cover it is different.”

While MLBN produces some of its own live games, the NHL Network relies on simulcasts of existing game coverage, supplemented by studio shows.

That means a heavy reliance on the knowledge and personalities of hosts and analysts, one of the most prominent being former Islanders, Rangers and Devils goalie Kevin Weekes, who made the move with the channel from Toronto.

“Kevin, I think, is the best in the business,” Bernstein said. “He lights it up every single night. He brings out things in the other analysts and the hosts. The energy is infectious.”

On Wednesday Weekes donned leg pads, glove and blocker while still wearing his shirt and tie for an in-studio demonstration with Sabres captain Brian Gionta of how to execute a tip-in.

Weekes said he is enjoying himself more than ever in his new, multisport environment.

“It’s been amazing, I have to say,” he said. “Even though I grew up playing hockey, I played baseball, too. I’m an all-sports fan. Having the chance to integrate between Major League Baseball and hockey, it makes a lot of sense.”

Weekes played “burby,” the Canadian version of stickball, growing up near Toronto. It sounds a lot like the American game, but he did note that up north hockey tape often is used to outline the strike zone on a wall.

“I’ve been fortunate to be on a lot of good teams, and a few really, really good teams, and I don’t say this lightly: This is the best team I’ve been on,” Weekes said.

“Two leagues combining to do something unprecedented, that’s never been done before in the history of sports television. It’s pretty special.”

MLB Network is the more fully developed, widely distributed twin, but MLBN president Rob McGlarry said the current state of the NHL side reminds him of where MLB was when it launched.

There already have been many changes since the new-look hockey channel debuted in October, with more to come after an offseason in which there is more time to plan.

“So far, so good; we’ve had a lot of positive response,” said Patterson, who used to work at MSG Network and called himself “a hockey guy.”

“We had a lot of success with MLB Network, so the challenge for us, which got us excited, was: Let’s turn that over to hockey and try to replicate what we do with baseball.”

The old, Toronto-based network often looked and sounded more Canadian — with a focus on Canadian teams — than the current incarnation. Partnering with baseball only adds to the Americanized feel.

In advance of a Stadium Series game between the Red Wings and Avalanche at Coors Field in February, a mini-rink was installed inside MLB’s Studio 42, where baseball analyst Harold Reynolds shot pucks at Weekes.

“If the NHL can put a rink in a real baseball field,” McGlarry said, “we figured we can put a rink in a fake baseball field.”

Why not?

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