The NHL returns to ESPN next season, putting hockey on sports' biggest - and most renown - network.
And yes, the iconic, "NHL on ESPN" theme music also will return.
The Walt Disney Co., ESPN and the NHL announced a seven-year media rights deal Wednesday to run through 2027-28.
Coyotes President and CEO Xavier Gutierrez reacted to the announcement while referencing a social media post from ESPN's Stephen. A. Smith.
"When you think about relevancy on the sports landscape in the U.S., ESPN gets you there," Gutierrez said. "Seeing Stephen A. Smith talking about the NHL, you sit there and you say, 'I've never heard the letters NHL come out of Stephen A. Smith's mouth.' He's a cultural figure, he's a sports figure, and we're on the radar with him.
"I cannot stress enough how important this partnership is. ESPN has proven itself a leader in the confluence of sports and technology and entertainment.
The agreement marks the first time since 2004 that ESPN has had NHL television rights.
Coyotes forward Clayton Keller was a youngster the last time the network aired an NHL game.
"It's awesome," Keller said. "I grew up watching hockey on ESPN, all of the Stanley Cup games and highlights. I miss watching that on SportsCenter. I think it's a step in the right direction for hockey."
It is being hailed as a major step for the NHL's exposure.
The deal includes exclusive coverage of the Stanley Cup Final on ABC in four of the seven years of the agreement, with the ability to simulcast on ESPN+ (the network's official streaming platform) and additional ESPN networks. In each season of the agreement, ESPN and ABC will have live, exclusive coverage of one Conference Final series and half of all first- and second-round games from the playoffs.
ABC and ESPN also will broadcast 25 exclusive, regular season games per season. Annual NHL events, including the All-Star Game and Skills Challenge, also will be broadcast on ABC and ESPN.
But the heart of the deal, ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro noted, is streaming.
ESPN found data showing that the NHL enjoyed the largest fan growth of any major sports league since 2005. Viewership among ages 18-48 is up 30 percent since that year.
Gutierrez believes ESPN is skating to where the puck will be, not where it's been.
"Where is the puck going in America?" Gutierrez said. "It's going direct-to-consumer. It's going to streaming. It's going to digital platforms. It's going to tech-enabled content platforms. I'm excited because they are so innovative in utilizing sports as an entertainment platform."
ESPN will produce 75 national, regular season games that will stream on ESPN+ and Hulu. It also will replace NHL.TV, the league's current out-of-market streaming platform, with ESPN+ -- and stream, there, more than 1,000 out-of-market games.
ESPN+ had 12.1 million subscribers at the end of 2020. Hulu boasts 39.4 million subscribers.
"This reflected the reality of what the media world's looking like now," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "Everybody knows that there's cord cutting. Everybody knows that these streaming platforms are growing dramatically."
Gutierrez believes the ESPN partnership "aligns with what our vision is as a club, and for where we want to go.
"We want to be able to tap into not only our incredibly rabid Coyote fan base, but the Coyote fan in waiting. ESPN does a wonderful job on the human side of sports and marketing their sports figures. ESPN has proven itself over and over again to really be imaginative in doing so.
Gutierrez added: "Think about for us: we have made it known that we stand for the inclusivity of non-sports fans, or inclusivity of fans of other sports. The NHL partnership with ESPN helps us get there."
The NHL first appeared on ESPN on Dec. 19, 1979, three months after the network debuted. The league left ESPN in 1988 and returned in 1992, and aired for the first time on ESPN2 in 1993, just days after that channel's debut. In the succeeding years, the NHL played a key role in the growth of ESPN2, leading to ESPN and ESPN2 celebrating their 1,000th NHL telecast on March 8, 1998.
Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet reminisced about ESPN's NHL coverage from his days as a player.
"Bill Clement and Gary Thorne, they were great," Tocchet said. "And Steve Levy. It's a great marriage. I'm glad the NHL and ESPN came to that type of agreement because there are a lot of great memories when ESPN used to cover hockey. It's a great move by the NHL and ESPN."
Lead Photo Credit: Christian Petersen - Getty Images // Second Photo Credit: Arizona Coyotes // Footer Photo Credit: Christian Petersen - Getty Images