NHL Fans, Sport’s Coverage Could Benefit From ESPN’s Mass Exodus

Jan 14, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; A general view of the Stanley Cup and NHL Logo before the game between the Dallas Stars and the Minnesota Wild at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 14, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; A general view of the Stanley Cup and NHL Logo before the game between the Dallas Stars and the Minnesota Wild at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

Many stunning decisions were made by ESPN on Wednesday with regard to mass layoffs, and the sports media giant’s NHL department was particularly hard hit

Sports fans — those of the NHL and beyond — journalists and others were saddened, shocked and angered Wednesday when ESPN slowly but surely started to lay off key writers and contributors. It seemed no one was safe from the purge, which has even leaked into today.

Longtime college basketball writer Andy Katz announced on Twitter today that he was being pushed out. He joins the likes of Jayson Stark (MLB), Dana O’Neil (college basketball), Ed Werder (NFL), Trent Dilfer (NFL) and Dr. Jerry Punch (auto racing, college football) among many, many other familiar faces, on screen and off.

But the media giant’s NHL department was especially gutted. Not particularly known for its rousing hockey coverage to begin with, ESPN ousted NHL writers Pierre LeBrun, Scott Burnside and Joe McDonald. SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross, a hockey fan and proprietor of the “Bucci Overtime Challenge, was also reportedly on his way out, though he’s apparently sticking with the company for now.

This essentially leaves Craig Custance and Tim Kavanagh as ESPN’s hockey writers, and both are behind a paywall. There’s also Barry Melrose on television, though he doesn’t get nearly as much airtime as those who analyze other sports.

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This is more or less a sign from ESPN that it doesn’t consider the NHL worth covering in the same way as MLB, the NFL and the NBA. It’s something we all knew, but this really hammers it home.

It’s bad news now …

This is obviously terrible news, first and foremost, for the three NHL writers and dozens of others who lost their jobs Wednesday and today. These people have families to support, and they’re abruptly unemployed (though LeBrun at least has his insider post with TSN). It’s an awful situation.

Looking at it from a fan perspective, this is obviously a disappointment right now. The Stanley Cup Playoffs started their second round the day ESPN decided the NHL was not a major market for media coverage.

A lot of casual fans who may tune into SportsCenter for all their sports highlights and coverage are going to get even less hockey than they already were. It’s frustrating to see for a league that struggles to market itself properly and consistently to begin with.

However, this could work out for the better for NHL fans and coverage of the sport.

LeBrun, Burnside and McDonald are three of the most knowledgeable hockey sources in the business. If you’ve ever spent an NHL trade deadline on Twitter, you’re learning and spreading news often reported by one or more of this trio.

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The three come up with unique content and go the extra mile to give hockey fans all the information they seek. Despite ESPN not giving hockey a whole lot of love on its television properties — diving into the 2016 World Cup of Hockey the only major break this century — this trio puts out tons of fresh stories and opinion pieces on a daily basis.

… but it could be a positive later

Now, these three aren’t on the verge of retiring, and they’re obviously among the leaders in NHL journalistic coverage. So they’re going to find homes elsewhere (in LeBrun’s case, he already has at least one). And that’s where we can find a silver lining.

If you’ve ever read anything from The Athletic (and you really should), you may recognize Scott Powers used to work for ESPN. Look what we’ve got now as far as Chicago sports coverage with Powers not tied to the big company.

The same thing could happen here. Maybe these guys will go to NBC Sports. Maybe Fox Sports will see this as an opening to dive into the hockey market. Or maybe these three could come up with a whole new media outlet to continue giving NHL fans the coverage they seek.

These three writers are way too good at what they do to stay unemployed for long. And while it was like a gut punch to see how little ESPN valued them (and others), I’d like to think we might get even better NHL coverage in the future out of what’s happening this week.

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If anything, this should remind us to always support our favorite writers in order to show the companies they work for that we do indeed appreciate and desire their work. Because things can do a complete 180 at the snap of your fingers.