Step 1 - Get on ESPN
Step 2 - ???
Step 3 - Profit!
The supposed returns from a return to ESPN seem entirely imaginary to me. The idea that the NHL returning to ESPN will lead to a significant NHL presence on Sportscenter seems entirely delusional to me. Last time the NHL was on ESPN, there was hardly a significant NHL presence on the morning Sportscenter. Back before all the scores and highlights were easily accessable online, and Sportscenter was the primary means for catching those items, the NHL usually appeared about 45-50 minutes in, and the WWL's idea of NHL coverage was to (maybe) show 20 seconds of highlights from a single game, followed by a bunch of scoreboards for the rest of the games.
The NHL was never a priority on Sportscenter when ESPN had the rights, and the only thing people point out to say why that wouldn't be the case is that the NHL has more marketable stars in Crosby and Ovechkin now. That may be true, but that doesn't mean the NHL is going to get exposure, just that the Penguins and Capitals would. We'd be right back to one or two quick sets of highlights about some combination of DET/PIT/WSH and then some quick scoreboards. This is before we even consider what quality of highlights or analysis you're even going to get on Sportscenter. Oh boy, nothing excites me like hearing Stuart Scott say something stupid as we see Sidney Crosby light the lamp.
The other wonderful thing ESPN will do is take their legions of casual fans and throw them at the NHL, making people fall in love with the game because ESPN gave it to them. Like all these people are really waiting for the NHL to move to ESPN to become hockey fans. One of the complaints about Versus is that casual fans don't even know what channel it is, if they even have it. You're telling me that someone who can't bother to look up what channel the NHL is on is who we're looking to recruit?
Furthermore, you're trying to convince me that because something is on ESPN, its going to suddenly net tons of casual viewers? Poker and NASCAR get plenty of time on ESPN, but they're not on any sort of higher ground than the NHL is, despite all their ESPN exposure. People watch poker because it comes on after they get home from work or after Sportscenter. I've watched poker because it was on. I've watched trickshot billiards because it was on. Hell, I've watched scrabble on ESPN before because it was on. But if you think legions of casual sports fans are marking their calendars for a poker event on TV and becoming actual fans who can be milked for their money, you're kidding yourself. There is a significant difference between "oh gee, theres nothing else on and I need background noise while I look at internet porn" and "OH MY GOD DUDE HE TOTALLY GOT THAT ROYAL FLUSH ON THE RIVER WOW IM GONNA GO GET A PHIL HELLMUTH T-SHIRT!!!". One of these isn't really a fan, and one of them is. One of them is a useful asset to a professional sports league, and one of them is considerably less than that.
Of course, there is the issue of quality of presentation and analysis of the product should the NHL return to ESPN as well. Yes, Versus doesn't have a very good studio team. Brian Engblom and Keith Jones are not exactly a couple of hockey-oriented Einsteins, but then again, neither was Barry Melrose, was he? Most of my time watching the NHL on ESPN was spent yelling at Barry Melrose or listening to Gary Thorne verbally fellate Peter Forsberg. ESPN really isn't much of a step up from where the NHL is at currently, in that regard. Its not like Engblom and Jones have tried to come back to the game recently and been summarily bounced right back out for being incompetent.
One of the fondest memories people have of the NHL on ESPN is the good ol' NHL 2Nite. Yes, a highlights show is better than none, which is what Versus currently does. The thing people forget is that NHL 2Nite was carried more by Buccigross' charisma than anything else. NHL2Nite wasn't even that big on the highlights either. It looked good because there weren't any other options, but when you got past the hour's worth of commercials squeezed into a half hour and reduced run times because of other sport's overages of time, you got a couple quick highlights and that was it. Really, it was John Buccigross' charisma and a lack of options that made NHL 2Nite great.
NHL Network's On The Fly Final is a far more complete highlight and general hockey news show than NHL 2Nite ever was, and hockey certainly isn't getting a full 1 hour show at a reasonable hour on ESPN anytime soon. It may not have flashy graphics or the charisma of a guy like Buccigross, but its pretty good as it is, it has some far better analysts in guys like Larry Murphy and Gary Greene, and those cosmetic shortcomings are the sorts of things that can be improved on. If you really want to make an improvement, do what the NFL Network did with Rich Eisen, and snag Buccigross away from ESPN and put him to work on the NHL Network. If we want a highlights show on cable, without being on NHL Network, why not just get Versus to start playing On The Fly once or twice a night? It's gotta pull in more eyes than Fanarchy or whatever else Versus is putting on TV.
What do I think would be best for the NHL in terms of television exposure? First of all, I think you re-up with Versus. They're willing to do a lot for the NHL, and not many other networks will give you two straight months of prime time programming without a fight. Keep Versus as a primary station. Secondly, re-up with NBC as well. Or maybe CBS. To me, the two are mostly interchangable and equally irrelevant. Give them the same package they have now, give them the Winter Classic, and give them some playoffs. And please, demand that they get McGuire and Milbury off the broadcast team, and replace them with some intelligent people.
Third, if ESPN is interested, you give them a weekly game. Don't hem and haw and make concessions to get on ESPN. Just say, "hey, you guys want some sort of game of the week package for every Friday night?". If they don't, fine, walk away. If they do, take it. Just a game a week for ESPN, no playoffs, no Winter Classic, just give them one game a week. Tell them that if the NHL is to return to the "World Wide Leader In Sports", its not going to be groveling and begging for forgiveness, but as a viable, growing product.
Beyond that, I think the NHL needs to seriously invest in the NHL Network, in an effort to make the NHL Network the primary platform for all things NHL. Obviously that road isn't perfect, as the NFL can tell you, but it has serious benefits. I'm a fan of hockey and football, and I can personally attest that the NFL Network is a far more attractive platform for all things NFL related compared to ESPN, Fox, or CBS. The highlights are more comprehensive, the analysis is more informed, you get far more insight into all aspects of the game, there is more NFL-related programming, and the discussions of relevant issues are far more informed. In fact, one of the things that most impresses me about the NFL Network is that, for a network owned and run by the league, it isn't afraid to be critical of the league, its commissioner, or its practices.
Its not quite perfect, but the NFL Network is leading the way in this aspect of business, and its something that the other three major sports should be eager to mimic. If the NHL started putting together more original programming, airing more live games, breaking more news, and working to bring more and better on-air talent into the network, they'd catch even more eyes. For me, I don't watch much TV, but for a significant portion of the year, I exclusively watch the NFL and NHL Networks. Giving more people more reasons to watch the NHL Network will only serve to help the league further. These steps will do far more to help the NHL long term, than to go crawling back to ESPN, asking to be loved again. For the life of me, I can't understand why anyone thinks crawling back to ESPN is going to be a miracle cure for the NHL's television woes.