Hockey fans have often criticized NBC’s coverage for not showing more of the NHL’s young stars and the up-and-coming teams.
That changes when the season opens Wednesday as the network goes with a new approach.
NBCSN’s “Wednesday Night Rivalries” has been replaced by “Wednesday Night Hockey.” As part of the repackaging, the network’s studio crew will occasionally report on site, starting on Wednesday from Washington when the Capitals begin defense of their title against Boston.
“We’re now showcasing the brightest team and stars. We think it’s a great way to add new teams and stars to a big night,” NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood said. “The intent on Wednesday nights has always been to make it the destination night for hockey. Now we can really take advantage of that.”
Much like the NBA does on Thursdays, the NHL has tried to make Wednesday its night for must-see TV.
Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer, said “Wednesday Night Rivalries” proved how special that night can be for the league.
“We’re going to make Wednesday night feel special and we want our players to once we get into this to say, ‘Wow, we’re playing on Wednesday night.’ We know that in football, for example, playing on ‘Monday Night Football’ is a big deal,” Mayer said. “Well, why can’t playing on Wednesday night hockey be a big deal? And that’s what we’re striving for.”
The biggest beneficiaries of the change are the Western Conference teams. NBCSN will air 18 doubleheaders on Wednesday nights — up from five last season — and 67 of the scheduled 110 games on NBC and NBCSN will have a team from the conference.
Winnipeg, which has not made a regular-season national appearance since 2014, will make five this season, including an Oct. 24 game against Toronto that will see NBCSN’s studio show going on the road.
NBC’s Mike Emrick said the Jets are one of many teams that deserve the increased exposure.
“That matchup could be a Stanley Cup final. There is going to be plenty of excitement with that game early in the season,” he said.
Other teams receiving increased exposure are Tampa Bay and Nashville. Both teams will make 12 appearances, which is almost double what they had last season. Defending Western Conference champion Vegas (9), Anaheim (8) and Edmonton (7) also have nearly twice as many appearances as last season.
Colorado, which was on only once last year, will be on six times.
“We feel it’s time and vital that, given the parity of the league throughout, that we start to develop other teams,” Mayer said. “If suddenly the Nashvilles and the Tampas and some teams that haven’t had the grand exposure get exposure, what’s to say that they’re not going to be the higher-rated teams? … We really believe that our audience is into great hockey played by the best teams and the way we present the games and the stars will lead to great ratings.”
The traditional teams will still get plenty of exposure. Chicago will have the most appearances with 19 despite not making the playoffs last season. One of those games will be the Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium on Jan. 1 against Boston. Washington will make the first of its 18 appearances followed by Philadelphia (17) and Pittsburgh (15).
The only teams not scheduled to appear on NBCSN are Ottawa and Vancouver.
“Certainly from a kind of talent standpoint, a competitive standpoint, showing more clubs is better,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “The fact that NBC is prepared to engage on that basis where we don’t necessarily have to have major U.S. markets for their national games says a lot about how far we’ve come as a sport.”
The All-Star Game, which will be held in San Jose on Jan. 26, will be broadcast in prime time on NBC, which is the first time that has happened on a major broadcast network since 1997.
Flood thinks the three-on-three format could draw even more fans. It also will be the week before the Super Bowl, which should allow the league to reap increased exposure.
The league is also focusing on improving its digital offerings through its deal with BAMTech, which began as a spinoff of Major League Baseball Advanced Media before becoming its own entity. The Walt Disney Co. took a controlling stake in BAMTech in 2017.
The NHL.TV offering will include more pregame and postgame coverage, as well as being able to view programming during intermission, after deals were made with team broadcasting partners.
ESPN hasn’t aired the NHL since 2004 on any of its channels but will have nine games a week on its ESPN+ streaming service starting this season. ESPN+, which launched in April and just crossed over a million subscribers, had at least one baseball game a day. ESPN+ will also air a nightly hockey show.
“We know there is a big opportunity to grow the subscriber base with both products,” said Disney Streaming President Michael Paull. “One thing we learned is that fans want more video. They want more coverage before and after the games.”