Since ESPN won back the NHL rights two years ago, it has carried the All-Star Game and 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 Hurricanes from Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina.
ABC’s package of Saturday games airs typically in the afternoon, but hockey gets the prime-time slot with the NBA on its All-Star break.
Mark Gross — who oversees ESPN and ABC’s coverage as senior vice president, production and remote events — said they have seen notes from how TNT and NBC did their outdoor games. However, each stadium game has its 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 site,” Gross said. “We will also have sky cam coverage over the ice since there’s nothing to block it.”
Besides the sky cam, ABC will use a drone to provide additional aerial shots. Wireless mics 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 beginning 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 right into the playoffs, which are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It is a grind once we get into that, so I’m happy to come into it with some rest because once we get 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 got back 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 being at ice level because it is easier to see and break down the game.
“I think stepping on each other is the greatest concern 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 number of times, it becomes rhythm.”
Kaplan, also an online reporter for ESPN.com, said she asked about the possibility of doing rink-side reporting after ESPN regained the rights, figuring she might get a couple of games. She ended up getting added to the top team.
Kaplan said the one thing she learned from Ferraro was taking feedback from a limited circle of people.
“No one gives you a guidebook of this is what’s going to happen to you, when you’re suddenly thrust into a national television role. It was a lot of learning on the go,” she said. “It was rewarding because I could carve my own path. I want to stay true to myself and what I thought would be best for this role.”
McDonough has credited Ferraro and Kaplan for helping to navigate arenas and getting to know coaches and players.
“The comfort level is just so much higher for me this year. I thought I was following it fairly intensely as a fan, but it’s a different animal when you’re doing 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 didn’t take a three-week break in February (which was made when the league thought it would be competing in the Beijing Olympics). There also haven’t been games rescheduled due to COVID-19.
Ben-Hanan said there is the possibility of more Boston Bruins games being added to the schedule. The Bruins (41-8-5) are on pace to tie the NHL single-season mark of 62 wins shared by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We feel well positioned for our schedule the rest of the way, headlined by the Boston appearances. We’re embracing it, and it’s easy to follow if you’re a fan,” he said.
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