Steve Levy naturally wants the largest possible audience for ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup of Hockey, which opens on Saturday. But there is one particular audience member who will be prominent in his thoughts as he calls the action.
“My only butterflies, really, will be Mike Emrick sitting on a couch [at home] watching me,” Levy said. “I don’t need his approval, maybe just a little nod, a smirk, anything.
“I’ll never know or see, but part of me will wonder through that first game: ‘I hope I’m doing an OK job according to Mike Emrick.’”
Levy knows Emrick – whom he called “the nicest man on Earth” – never would criticize him publicly regardless, but the fact that he has been thinking of Emrick this week is a nod to the magnitude of his own assignment.
You see, Levy, an alumnus of Bellmore JFK High School, is one of many, many puckheads both in front of and behind the cameras at ESPN who have pined for the sport since it left the network after the 2004-05 lockout, bound for NBC.
That, combined with NBC’s Olympic coverage, has meant Emrick “has called every significant game involving NHL players for the last 12 years,” as Levy put it, cementing his status as the voice of the sport on American TV.
Enter Levy, who called NHL games in the days when ESPN carried them but more recently has been reduced to his annual visit to the Stanley Cup Final with Barry Melrose, where they cover the series but do not call it.
For all of Levy’s experience over 23 years at ESPN, he never has called the championship of any major sports event, something he and Melrose will do for the best-of-three World Cup final that begins on Sept. 27.
Levy said that while he has been thinking of how to welcome hockey fans back to ESPN, words likely will not be necessary. “I’m sure it will be obvious from my smile and enthusiasm,” he said.
He added that hockey-loving producers and directors jockeyed to be assigned to the tournament, which will be played in Toronto.
Melrose, ESPN’s most visible hockey personality, had the option to work the tournament from the studio but will be at the games.
Melrose, who joined ESPN in 1994, said on a conference call with reporters last week that when the NHL “was taken away from us, we lost it, it changed things drastically for ESPN . . . I think it’s going to be fantastic and I think it’s going to be great for hockey having it back on ESPN.”
John Buccigross will call games Levy is not working (with former Ranger, Islander and Devil Kevin Weekes) and later host studio coverage. Linda Cohn, a Newfield High School alumn and another big fan of the sport, also will have hosting duties.
And, yes, ESPN is bringing back its old NHL theme music for the occasion.
As much as Levy might eye NBC with some envy, he applauded how they have treated his favorite sport.
“They have put it on their front page and made it their thing, their lead event,” he said. “We were unable to do that and that probably hurt us . . . Look, I watch them constantly when I want to watch a hockey game.”
For this month, though, ESPN will be hockey central again, probably a good thing for a tournament that must find a niche on a distracting sports calendar full of football games and baseball pennant races.
“The first hockey that’s going to be on your television [this season] is going to be every team’s all-star from every market,” Levy said. “There will be no third- and fourth-liners playing in this tournament.”
Melrose and fellow ESPN analysts Chris Chelios and Brett Hull all pointed to ESPN’s involvement as a way to get the event attention south of the Canadian border.
“The hockey fan is going to be watching, whether it’s on our air or NBC or CBS or whoever has got hockey,” Melrose said. “What we hope to be able to grab with ESPN, and I think what the Players Association and NHL hope, is maybe a fan that’s watching a football game or a baseball game or a soccer game at that time with ESPN, all of a sudden they come across a hockey game on ESPN.
“Because you have got to remember, hockey hasn’t been on ESPN for basically 12 years. So maybe we will be able grab some of those fans that are not used to seeing hockey on ESPN.”