FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Bob McKenzie figured he had covered his last NHL Draft.
“I kinda of assumed when TSN lost the rights that might have been it,” said the veteran NHL insider, whose Canadian sports network lost out to Sportsnet in the last round of NHL rights negotiations.
For years, NHL Draft coverage in the U.S. would simply be a simulcast of a Canadian network like TSN. But rather than just air Sportsnet’s coverage of the 2015 NHL Draft, American NHL rights-holder NBCSN decided to mount its own original program covering the draft on Friday night.
And it decided to draft TSN talent for analysis and breaking news.
Liam McHugh hosts along with Pierre McGuire, McKenzie and draft analyst Craig Button at the big desk. Kathryn Tappen will anchor coverage from the floor of the BB&T Center, conducting interviews with players, coaches and general managers. TSN's Darren Dreger will handle reporting duties, providing information on potential trades and developing storylines.
The broadcast will also utilize interviews done on the day of the draft and at the NHL Combine with the likes of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the two mega-prospects fueling extra interest in this year’s draft.
It’s a leap forward for the network’s NHL coverage, and for U.S. audiences, after a season that saw it take another leap forward by having McKenzie on air in a weekly insider segment.
“On Wednesday nights, the core audience that watches are hockey fans. NBC doesn’t ever dumb it down for hockey,” said McKenzie. “The focus was always the NHL, but I wanted to make sure we introduced all aspects of hockey. I tried to make a point in to say here’s Auston Matthews and here’s what you need to know about him.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves talking about Matthews, the Scottsdale native and presumptive No. 1 pick in 2016 – NBCSN’s coverage of this year’s draft comes at a perfect moment for the network and for American hockey fans.
McDavid, called by some the best prospect to enter the League since Mario Lemieux, is the headliner. Eichel, the American-born product of Boston University, is the co-star. Behind them are a collection of young players that will populate the teams NBCSN features weekly, and the NCAA teams that the network wants to spotlight in its college hockey coverage.
“I think the timing is incredible because of the U.S. prospects,” said Button. “With American players, fans have a chance to follow them through. They’re going to be playing for national teams, college teams and eventually NHL teams.”
The question is: How do you tailor the NHL Draft for American audiences?
In many ways, the NHL Draft is like the Major League Baseball draft: While there is always going to be a hardcore base that will have watched the players through college, junior and international play, the majority of fans probably haven’t seen much of the prospects outside of the top two.
The NFL and NBA, in contrast, have the benefit of college seasons and postseasons that are intensely covered on a national scale, as well as the benefit of fans generally knowing those sports’ stars that are playing for their alma maters.
But the NHL is different from the MLB Draft in one very significant way, according to Dan Steir, NBCSN’s senior vice president of production.
“NFL is a ‘play now’ draft. NBA is a ‘play now’ and a development draft. The NHL was perceived at one point and time as a developmental draft. But due to the cap and other factors, it’s a bit more ‘play now,’” said Steir, who is producing the network’s draft coverage.
That lends an immediacy to the picks, especially those in the first round: These guys aren’t just going to be random names on the organizational depth chart for too long.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the origins for many of these players might seem alien to the kind of casual hockey fans NBCSN is hoping will tune in to watch Connor McJesus take the throne for the Edmonton Oilers.
Is there any concern that what’s assumed for a Canadian audience has to be better explained for an American one, like when it comes to junior leagues and teams?
“When I say ‘Shawinigan’ someone might not know what the hell I’m talking about,” admits McKenzie.
But that’s OK. American fans don’t necessarily need to know the difference between the WHL and the OHL. They just need to know whether the guy their team selected is a boom or a bust, a star or a schlub.
“There are three reasons why people watch a draft,” said Steir. “They watch to hear a pick. They watch to hear news related to their team. And they watch to hear about the trade rumors.”
Which is why having Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger is rather important to your coverage.
The draft itself is important, but usually takes a back seat to the deals that are made between GMs on the draft floor and the ones that almost happen.
“The draft isn’t just the draft. It’s this organic thing,” said McKenzie. “It’s kind of like covering a political convention.”
Dreger and McKenzie are part of the upper echelon of hockey news-breakers, along with Elliotte Friedman and Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet. Steir said that NBC will be tracking trades throughout Friday’s broadcast, although in most cases the news hitting the air will be substantiated stories rather than rumors that consume social media.
“There’s an opportunity where it’s an event, regardless of the sport, where front office personal take advantage of time to reassess assets,” he said.
McKenzie has over one million followers on Twitter, but said that his inside news will hit NBC’s airwaves first.
Of course, there will be an expected shift in the news that McKenzie and Dreger break. For TSN, anything and everything Toronto Maple Leafs was the focus; and even when it wasn’t, there would be some way to tie a story back to the Centre of the Hockey Universe.
This didn’t necessarily play well when the coverage was simulcast in the U.S., where the myopic debates about the Leafs’ checking line winger for next season aren’t exactly front-burner topics.
So with NBCSN doing its own thing, McKenzie anticipates that the franchises we constantly see on the network will be the ones they focus on – spending a little more time on the Philadelphia Flyers at No. 7 than the Leafs at No. 4, potentially.
“There are more eyeballs in certain cities than others,” said McKenzie.
No one’s sure what the eyeballs will be like for this draft, although with the McDavid and Eichel hype one assumes the ratings will be higher than in previous years.
American eyeballs know what they want to see from a televised draft: The sort of polished, newsy, insightful product that ESPN has produced for the NFL and NBA Drafts. Steir worked on the football production during his time at ESPN from 1992-2010, and also worked on their NCAA college basketball coverage.
It’s only fitting, then, that his work on the NHL Draft could lead to more interest in NBCSN’s own NCAA coverage.
The fact is that a lot of the names we hear on Friday night aren’t going right to the NHL, or even to the AHL. They’ll go back to Canadian junior hockey or, in some cases, back to the NCAA.
Kyle Connor (Michigan) and Colin White (Boston College) in particular are going to go in the first round, so this is a chance for NBCSN to hype players that will likely be on their network again in its ever-expanding NCAA hockey coverage.
“You’re not just going to hear about Kyle Connor, you can watch him,” said Button.
That’s important for the growth of hockey in the U.S., because Button believes that connecting fans of colleges to their college hockey programs, and then to the players in those programs, can make new NHL fans.
“I have talked to so many friends of mine that are coaches in the NCAA. If we’re going to take a step ahead, we have to invest in the NCAA. People relate to their college,” he said.
That goes for geography too, as next year’s expected No. 1 pick will exemplify.
“When I think of Auston Matthews, I think of Scottsdale AZ. He’s a terrific player but when you start to look at the origins, you’re like, ‘wow,’” said Button. “I think this is a new era for U.S. players.”
And with this new commitment to draft coverage that speaks directly to them, it’s a new era for U.S. hockey fans as well.
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