Liam McHugh is familiar with the rigors of hosting studio shows during the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially those nights when games go to the multiple overtimes on the West Coast.
McHugh is in for some relief this season. With Turner Sports and ESPN picking up the playoffs after 16 years, he will not be on almost every night like he was for on NBC and NBCSN. TNT and TBS get their first games on Thursday after ESPN and ESPN2 carried the first three nights of the postseason.
“It will be odd not to be on all the time. I will say I think there’s something great about recharging your batteries, having a day or two days to step away from it, watch it as an observer and then come back fresh based on what you watched,” McHugh said. “Because it does become Groundhog Day. Sometimes you don’t know what day the week is, and it feels like you’re talking about the same story over and over. So to come up for air is probably going to be a good thing for everyone.”
Turner hopes to continue the momentum from a successful regular season in the playoffs. Its games, mainly on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons, averaged 361,000 viewers. That’s an increase of 29% over last year on NBCSN (280,000) and 24% compared with 2019-20 (292,000).
Overall, regular-season games on TNT, ABC, and ESPN averaged 460,000, an 18% jump over last year (391,000) and up 15% vs. 2019-20 (398,000).
“More people are consuming the game. We’re at a point where people want what they want when they want it, how they want it, and that’s what we’re delivering,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in an interview with The Associated Press. “What was the underpinning of our new media deals in the U.S. were because we believed — without chopping and dicing it too much — we wanted there to be access to our games in more places but easy to find.”
The four playoff games on ESPN and ESPN2 on Monday's opening day posted strong numbers: They averaged 576,000 viewers, a 17% increase from 2019, which was the last time the playoffs were in a traditional format. The Boston-Carolina game on ESPN (857,000) was the most-watched Game 1 of a first-round series on cable in 20 years.
TNT and TBS will televise up to 49 playoff games. Turner Sports and ESPN will split the first and second rounds while each will have a conference final. The Stanley Cup Final will be on ABC this year and TNT next season.
While ESPN still had a core group with hockey experience when it regained NHL rights last year, Turner started from scratch. Most came over from NBC — like McHugh and the top announcing team of Kenny Albert, Ed Olczyk and Keith Jones — but there have been some new faces.
The biggest change between Turner and NBCSN has been the studio show. McHugh and Anson Carter worked together at NBC, while Wayne Gretzky, Paul Bissonnette and Rick Tocchet were new to TV. Gretzky will be a more frequent presence in the studio during the playoffs.
Even though some wondered if the studio show would be “Inside the NBA” on ice, it has managed to establish its own identity, mixing in pregame player interviews with news, analysis, and the occasional hijinks.
“At NBC, we always had this creative side, this fun side, but I think Turner truly takes it to another level,” producer David Gibson said.
McHugh’s biggest question was how Gretzky would adjust to doing television for the first time. He “The Great One” has embraced it.
“You still want to hear every little thing he has to say about hockey, but he’s also the guy who can chirp the other guys on the desk and can take a chirp from them,” McHugh said. “Because of that, it feels more like four or five guys sitting around watching hockey, really enjoying it, but also giving you some pretty good analysis along the way. It has definitely exceeded my expectations.”
Albert said he noticed the immediate chemistry from everyone in the studio when they go to them during intermissions.
“There’s a lot of interaction, and everybody has fun with it,” he said. “That’s probably been one of the biggest differences is just the entertainment in the studio this year and the back and forth that we’ve been able to have both before during, and after the games.”
McHugh will have two challenges during the playoffs — explaining to viewers that some West Coast games will start on TruTV and HLN when the first game isn’t finished, and getting Gretzky, Bissonnette and Tocchet ready for studio segments during marathon games.
“We’re going to get late nights, and they’re going to experience the joy of it’s the late game out West, and we are headed to quadruple overtime. And it is now two in the morning. So get another cup of coffee because you need to have the same energy you had seven hours ago when we came on the air because the viewers don’t expect you to look tired,” McHugh said. “I think I’m looking forward to those moments. Because in the end, those are the ones you remember.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this story.
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Joe Reedy, The Associated Press