Since ESPN won back the NHL rights two years ago, it has carried the All-Star Game and the Stanley Cup Finals on ABC. The only thing it hasn’t had is an outdoor game.
That changes Saturday night when ABC has the Stadium Series contest between the Washington Capitals and Carolina Panthers from Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina.
ABC’s package of Saturday games usually airs in the afternoon, but hockey gets prime time with the NBA during the All-Star break.
Mark Gross — who oversees ESPN and ABC’s coverage as senior vice president, production and outside events — said they have seen notes from how TNT and NBC played their outdoor games. However, each stadium game has its own flavor and identity.
“We’re excited because it’s a big event and it will have a big event feel with the studio team on location,” Gross said. “We will also have cloud cam coverage over the ice as there is nothing blocking it.”
In addition to the sky cam, ABC will use a drone to provide more aerial images. Wireless microphones will also be on select players and coaches in coordination with the NHL.
The start of the Saturday games on ABC on Jan. 28, and the All-Star Game the following week, marked the start of more games on both ABC and ESPN as things begin to build with the playoffs on the horizon in mid-April.
“Now it picks up from here,” play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough said. “Then obviously we go straight into the playoffs, which is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s a grind when we first get into it, so I’m happy to come into it with a bit of rest, because once we gets going, it’s a whirlwind, to say the least.”
McDonough is in his second season with analyst Ray Ferraro and reporter Emily Kaplan. They were named ESPN/ABC’s top team after the Walt Disney Company regained the rights in 2021 with a seven-year deal.
One of the adjustments McDonough had to make going to hockey is that Ferraro is between the benches instead of next to him in the booth for most games. Ferraro, like most analysts, prefers to be at ice level because it’s easier to see and break down the play.
“I think the biggest concern is stepping on each other because you can’t make eye contact. So I had to learn Sean’s cadence and Sean had to learn when I like to jump in,” Ferraro said. “After you do it a few times, it becomes a rhythm.”
Kaplan, also an online reporter for ESPN.com, said she inquired about the possibility of on-field reporting after ESPN regained the rights, thinking she might get a few games. It ended with her being added to the top team.
Kaplan said the one thing she learned from Ferraro was to take feedback from a limited circle of people.
“Nobody gives you a guidebook about this is what’s going to happen to you when you’re suddenly thrown into a national TV role. There was a lot of learning while you were on the move, she says. “It was rewarding because I was able to carve my own path. I want to be true to myself and what I thought would be best for this role.”
McDonough has credited Ferraro and Kaplan with helping navigate venues and getting to know coaches and players.
“The comfort level is just so much higher for me this year. I thought I followed it pretty intensely as a fan, but it’s a different animal when you do this job,” McDonough said.
Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s senior vice president, programming and acquisitions, said scheduling has been more favorable this season because the NHL did not take a three-week break in February (which was created when the league thought it would compete in the Beijing Olympics). Nor have matches been rescheduled due to COVID-19.
Ben-Hanan said there is a possibility of more Boston Bruins games being added to the schedule. The Bruins (41-8-5) are on pace to break the NHL single-season mark of 62 wins shared by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We feel well positioned for the rest of our schedule, with an appearance in Boston. We embrace it and it’s easy to follow if you’re a fan,” he said.
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