ESPN's Sean McDonough during a regular-season NHL game in Denver...

ESPN's Sean McDonough during a regular-season NHL game in Denver on April 2, 2022. Credit: ESPN Images/Gabriel Christus

Ray Ferraro was discussing Game 1 of the Lightning-Rangers Eastern Conference Final when the subject of the Rangers’ youth and playoff inexperience came up.

“I think experience matters,” the ESPN analyst said during a virtual news conference on Thursday. “Then I watched those kids play [in a 6-2 victory], and I'm like, maybe it doesn't matter as much as I think it does, because they didn't look shy; they didn't look intimidated.”

Ferraro was talking hockey, not television, but ESPN itself has been the subject of a similar debate this season.

After a 17-year break, the network regained rights to the NHL after its long run on NBC, and its top announcing team spoke frankly about the challenges involved.

Sean McDonough, who recently turned 60, is a lifelong hockey fan and is one of the most seasoned big-event play-by-play men in the country, admitted it took time to get up to speed.

When asked to name the season’s high and low points, he said, “The low point is just the frustration at the beginning of the feeling I wasn't doing the job as well as I should have been.

“I've gone in and out of a lot of sports and usually it's not that hard, but it had been 17 years with hockey, and a lot has changed.”

McDonough cited the speed of the game, saying that early in the season he found himself at times in mid-sentence when the puck went in the net.

He also noted that in the current generation of NHL rinks, the broadcast location tends to be far more distant from the ice than in older arenas.

“That's a little bit of a frustration, just feeling like sometimes we're so far away and it's a little harder to do our job than it should be,” he said.

(McDonough noted the “bridge” at Madison Square Garden is one of the best places in the league from which to call a game.)

That distance from the ice is behind another challenge ESPN has faced in working out kinks. McDonough works alone in the booth while Ferraro is located at ice level.

ESPN's Ray Ferraro during game seven of the second round...

ESPN's Ray Ferraro during game seven of the second round of the Rangers-Hurricanes series on May 30, 2022. Credit: ESPN Images/Phil Ellsworth

“It’s not like you can look at each other or nudge each other or give each other a, ‘Hey, I’d like to add to what you’re saying,’” McDonough said. “We really have to be careful on the timing and not stepping on each other.”

McDonough said the two got better at that as the season went on, but as recently as Game 1 they stepped on each other’s lines a couple of times early on.

“We actually texted between periods and said, ‘Hey, let’s just make sure we don’t continue to do that,’” McDonough said. “I thought it was much cleaner after the first period.”

But Ferraro and McDonough said the access and insight that Ferraro can get at ice level is worth the logistical complications.

“I think I can catch things that are available that you can't see however many feet above the ice Sean is in each game,” Ferraro said. “Some places you're on the moon.”

Deep playoff runs always are a challenge for fans accustomed to hearing local announcers during the regular season. And for most of this century, they then heard NBC’s Mike “Doc” Emrick call the season’s biggest games nationally.

Now ESPN and Turner are in the first season of a seven-year deal that will have them alternate carrying the Final, with ESPN up first, and naturally there has been added scrutiny – in front of and behind the camera.

Many criticized ESPN after the Rangers eliminated the Hurricanes for not showing the postgame handshake between Tony DeAngelo and Alexander Georgiev, given the bad blood between them when they were Rangers teammates.

But despite the hiccups, the hockey fans at ESPN have embraced the opportunity. McDonough called working the Final a “dream come true” for him and many colleagues.

“ESPN has been out of the game for so long and we want to come back in a big way,” rinkside reporter Emily Kaplan said, “but these things do take growing pains, because again, it's all about the reps.

“We need to get those reps. We're in year one of seven right now, and I think we're at a really good place. But I know we're only going to get better year after year.”

ESPN's Emily Kaplan during game seven of the second round...

ESPN's Emily Kaplan during game seven of the second round Rangers-Hurricanes series of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.  Credit: ESPN Images/Phil Ellsworth

More sports media