ESPN doesn't care about hockey, so why can't we all just be okay with that?

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Remembering the lost years of hockey on ESPN between 2002 and 2004.

I don't know about any of you people, but I'm getting real sick and tired of it being "news" everytime somebody asks an executive or personality at ESPN about their coverage of hockey.

Yesterday, Richard Deitsch posted his typically outstanding Media Circus column, which featured this bit from ESPN President John Skipper on the network's treatment of the sport:

"Look, I don't think it's fair," Skipper said. "I see SportsCenter every day and we cover hockey every day. We do not have a significant differential between highlights of hockey now and when we had it. The only difference is we are not there [as a rights holder]. If we were there for the playoffs, we'd be throwing to the guys calling the game. We can't do that, but we are at hockey games. We are doing hockey highlights."

As I said, whenever anybody puts ESPN and the coverage of the NHL in the same sentence, everyone freaks the hell out. Lots of folks wrote about it, including the terrific Travis Hughes.

I, personally, have grown completely worn out of the subject. It doesn't matter anymore, it won't matter again until NHL television rights are up again at the start of the next decade, and I just don't want to have this discussion. The National Hockey League has moved on. ESPN has moved on. So why can't everyone else?

(Before we get into an ESPN-related rant, let me please point out that they (between ESPN.com and Grantland) employ three of my favorite human beings covering hockey today -- Katie Strang, Katie Baker, and Craig Custance -- as well as one of hockey's pre-eminent insiders -- Pierre LeBrun -- it's funniest satirist -- Sean McIndoe -- and a Scott Burnside -- Scott Burnside. Also, that Buccigross fella' is still there. I highly recommend all of them.)

Let's talk about something that no one ever really wants to talk about whenever we have this argument: John Skipper is 100 percent correct when he says that ESPN covers hockey about as much as they did before they lost television rights. Whenever people talk about hockey's "glory days" over at ESPN, they're almost exclusively discussing the off-the-cuff feel of "Fire on Ice" and Gary Thorne and Bill Clement doing Red Wings/Avs games on the reg. You're not talking about SportsCenter highlights. Around the Horn didn't exist then. When people think of ESPN and hockey, they think of game coverage and NHL2Night.

First, let's cover the "games" part of that discussion. What follows are, via The 506, the number of games ESPN and ESPN 2 covered from 1996-97 through 1998-99, the last three seasons in which the network shared NHL TV rights with the Fox network (and before they very shiftily took those rights away).

1996-97

ESPN: 27 (16 of these games were blacked out in local markets and featured a "back-up" game)
ESPN2: 78
Total: 105

1997-98

ESPN: 26 (15 featured a back-up game)
ESPN2: 78
Total: 104

1998-99

ESPN: 26 (14 featured a back-up game)
ESPN2: 74
Total: 100

This is all fine. You may notice that ESPN basically aired a "Game of the Week" package for most of those years, and most of those games weren't even exclusive. Almost all ESPN2 games weren't exclusive, so it's remarkable anyone watched hockey at all during these years. Though, of course, you have to remember the old story that the NHL essentially built ESPN2 into a regularly programmed network until enough college basketball existed to replace it.

In 1999, the Disney corporation became the exclusive cable and network rights-holder for National Hockey League games, which should've meant more exposure than ever on their platforms. For the first couple of years, this turned out to be right. Let's look at the next three NHL on ESPN season, and hell, let's throw in the number of regional games ABC would chip in, so everything's under the same umbrella.

1999-00

ESPN: 27 (4 featured a backup game)
ESPN2: 101 (!)
ABC: 15
Total: 143

2000-01

ESPN: 27 (10 featured a backup game)
ESPN2: 99
ABC: 16
Total: 142

2001-02

ESPN: 27 (10 featured a backup game)
ESPN2: 75
ABC: 15
Total: 117

Pretty good, right? ESPN got fewer of those annoying blacked out games. Often, when we're talking about "the highest rated game since ______" we're talking about these three season, and exclusivity is why. Slight drop in that last year there, though. Gee, wonder if that progresses any further?

In 2002, Disney began a contract that gave them both network and cable rights to the NBA. That meant that they had exclusive access to both of the daily winter professional sports leagues. Let's take a look at how many games the networks of ESPN aired between 2002, and their last year holding NHL rights, which ended with the 2004-05 lockout.

2002-03

ESPN: 21 (15 of these telecasts were split regionals. Essentially, no backup game, but none of these were fully nat'l)
ESPN2: 50
ABC: 15
Total: 86

ESPN's first NHL telecast of the 2002-03 season occurred on Oct. 9. They didn't broadcast another game until Dec. 5.

2003-04

ESPN: 19 (8 split regional telecasts, including one three-way regional on Oct. 8)
ESPN2: 51
ABC: 14
Total: 84

Again, ESPN broadcast on opening night, Oct. 8, and didn't touch the NHL again until December.

Wow, we really fell off a cliff there, didn't we? ESPN (the main network) essentially abandoned the NHL when they were growing into the monolith we now know and don't love. This is when they had the assets and ancillary programming available to cross-promote with the NHL. I remember listening to Mike and Mike at one point in 2003 or 2004. They were attempting to talk about how great Martin Brodeur was, and they were admitting how little they actually knew about him. This is when it started to become cool, it seems, for a lot of folks to flaunt how cool they were to not know anything about hockey. This is when SportsCenter highlights started becoming infrequent. Except, you know, for the Bertuzzi thing...

Now, on to that other point, NHL2Night. That show was cancelled permanently in 2004, true. However, it used to be a show that aired on a nightly basis. It was always promoted as being on in late night Tuesday-Saturday every week during the NHL season. That version of NHL2Night was cancelled after the 2002-03 season. ESPN went an entire NHL broadcast season with it's flagship NHL show essentially acting as a glorified post-game show.

Based on the number of games airing on ESPN2 during 2003-04, and given NHL2Night was a half-hour show... factor in commercials... the ESPN family of networks is covering hockey approximately 44 minutes less per week than it did before they lost TV rights. NHL2Night was on ESPN2, however. On ESPN itself, the NHL coverage really hasn't gone that far down. Skipper is right, maybe they'd do a live hit with a game crew during the playoffs, but during the late years of the NHL on ESPN, those would likely be relegated to ESPNNews. The sad fact is... John Skipper is right. Based on resources, ESPN covers the NHL about as much as they did between 2002 and 2004 here in 2013.

They're an entertainment company that happens to be in the business of sports broadcasting, and hockey ain't part of their business
My point though -- my long, belabored point -- is that we need to stop caring. Some hockey fans need to stop having their little inferiority complex with ESPN not paying them enough attention. Some sports media writers need to stop indulging that complex. ESPN is, for better or (more likely) worse, a business. They're not a sports network, really. They're an entertainment company that happens to be in the business of sports broadcasting, and hockey ain't part of their business. You'll get Steve Levy and Barry Melrose at the Stanley Cup Final and like it.

The NHL, well, they'll be fine too. They'll have the same 100-110 games a season on NBC and NBC Sports Network that they used to have on ESPN and ESPN2. They have a nightly hockey show (NHL Overtime is five nights a week now, guys). Oh, and by the way, they have a whole cable network dedicated to talking about them whenever they want. It maybe needs to improve a little, but it exists.

It was an ugly divorce between hockey fans and ESPN, but now we're both doing better now. Can't we just all be friends?

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