On ESPNU coverage, college hockey & respect

Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE

Nate Wells has some thoughts on the good and bad of ESPNU broadcasting the inaugural Big Ten hockey game last week. Spoiler: It's mostly bad.

At least it's not a basketball press conference.

That thought came to mind several times Saturday morning while watching a television replay of Minnesota and Wisconsin playing the first-ever Big Ten conference game the night before. It continues to pop up in the days since then. After covering the game at Mariucci Arena and missing ESPNU's coverage live, viewing it a second time was due to the outrage.

College hockey fans don't always agree on much, but in this case the vitriol on social media towards play-by-play guy Sam Gore and color commentator Sean Ritchlin was unanimous among Gopher, Badger and hockey fans alike.

All the tweets and comments couldn't prepare.

Gore mixed up Minnesota and Wisconsin's colors early, saying "Minnesota was wearing red" when the home school with Maroon and Gold colors was sporting white sweaters. The first goal call was "looking for the shot...yes and it is good" said in a monotone voice.

[There's more. Watch the replay on WatchESPN.]

Still, Friday wasn't the first time Wisconsin and Minnesota's rivalry on the ice has been a part of disappointing television coverage. A February 2008 game between the two teams on Big Ten Network was relegated to "picture in picture" while a live press conference of head basketball coach Kelvin Sampson resigning from Indiana was broadcast. There was no way to even watch online. To make matters worse, BTN changed nothing on the replay.

Similar to BTN's first go at covering college hockey after its 2007 launch with the Indiana basketball press conference debacle and making some games pay streams only, ESPNU's first regular season game in a couple years was a fiasco.

Friday's Gophers-Badgers contest was the dream scenario that realignment opponents feared. Instead of utilizing the national exposure that comes with being on the ESPN family of networks, Big Ten hockey was given the coverage equivalent of Division III football.

History and rivalries were broken up for this.

Gore, quiet for 15 second stretches of active play, seemed confused at times and kept asking Ritchlin, a former Michigan player who played for the Wolverines from 1995-1999, what stuff meant. It didn't seem like those questions were for the benefit of the crowd, either. When he wasn't quiet, stretches were broken up by Gore saying "there are 3 periods in college hockey" or mistakenly calling several offsides plays as penalties.

Ritchlin for his part did explain. He wasn't perfect, but was capable as a color commentator. It wasn't his job to describe the action yet Ritchlin adjusted to a play-by-play role as the game continued.

But it was an embarrassment. The game had to speak for itself because if not it would have drowned. Hockey is a hard sport to announce yet student broadcasts have done a better job with preparation and rhythm. Only this was being produced by the Worldwide Leader.

People like hockey and media writer Ken Schott of The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, New York and Rick Pizzo of BTN had harsh words for the ESPNU broadcast. I don't blame them. According to Schotts' article, "ESPN should be embarrassed with the game coverage. Find a play-by-play announcer who knows the game."

It's cliché to say that ESPN doesn't care about hockey because the sports network has not covered the NHL for almost a decade. Even if that is true as a network, the Worldwide Leader does have employees who care. John Buccigross is one of the biggest champions of college hockey in addition to calling the Frozen Four. Whether it was him or Clay Matvick, who was around for Big Ten Media Day, or Gary Thorne or Steve Levy or any number of announcers who previously have hockey play-by-play experience, there are other options.

Instead the game was a gig for a play-by-play guy whose Twitter bio reads "announce tennis year round and whatever college sport is in season."

That's not to say Gore, or anyone whose first sport isn't situated in an ice arena, can't call a hockey game. Dan Dickerson normally is a baseball guy yet does a great job calling college hockey (including Michigan-Ohio State for Fox Sports Detroit). When he gets the chance so does Buccigross, whose first job is anchoring "Sportscenter."

At the same time, this isn't also a call for solely local announcers or someone who can break down why Kyle Rau draws penalties on a regular basis. In Minnesota, fans can be spoiled with almost every game broadcast on TV. Sadly that is not the case for every team. With college hockey, games on regional sports networks are the exception rather than the rule. Plenty are streamed online or worse not shown at all.

It's nice to be able to rely on coverage even if the coverage is slanted to one team. Fox Sports North does an outstanding job covering most games and the few that aren't FSN productions is a reminder of that. This doesn't compare to a Notre Dame or Anchorage web stream. ESPN has the resources.

More importantly, ESPN has the resources to show a national broadcast.

Having more college hockey national broadcasts - even as someone who covers a team that can be spoiled with coverage - is good for a sport that can be described as a niche of a niche. Television exposure continues to increase. Sometimes it is good to get out of the bubble we've made for ourselves. No growth comes if you only cater to die-hards. Outsiders should be welcomed.

It is something that BTN is looking to do with its broadcasts. Mark Silverman, President of BTN said at Big Ten Media Day in September, "What we (BTN) pledge to do is listen to our audience, acknowledge that we're not going to do everything right, incorporate things as we evolve over the years that make sense to what we're trying to accomplish and ignoring things that are more provincial in criticism."

That's fine even for a sport covering a team which is proud of its provincial leanings. The closest thing to a national regular season broadcast for several years has been Wisconsin games when a Badgers analyst would join the Minnesota duo. (Oddly enough, Silverman also brought up that exact scenario for an example of one thing BTN was looking to do with its coverage.)

If a game that features one of the game's best rivalries is going to be time-shifted on a Friday afternoon for the benefit of TV, the onus is on the broadcast to give the game all the respect it deserves. That wasn't the case at all with ESPNU's broadcast.

Friday's broadcast struggles would be one thing if it felt like I was being talked down to while there was an explanation of the college hockey structure for the national audience. That's understandable. It's a slightly different audience than just passionate die-hards.There are several interesting pieces of information that a hardcore college hockey fan might take for granted others do not know.

It's another thing for a broadcast to be ill-prepared enough with its research and give off the feeling of "oh yeah we paid for this puck thing between football and basketball."

For all the errors, which includes saying "downtown Minnesota," and lack of corrections, there was no "next level" analysis that someone could have learned. Gore and Ritchlin took 2 ½ periods to explain the high number of NHL draft picks on both teams. Or that there could be NHL draft picks playing college hockey. Or the passion - something the Big Ten is trying to promote in ads - which lefts something to be desired.

There wasn't even regular analysis. If the job of the announcer and color commentator is to impart knowledge while calling the action as it unfolds, the broadcast Friday was pure reaction.

But hey, it was ESPN's first regular season college hockey game in years.

"We're not going to get everything right out of the gate. That happens," Silverman said about BTN's broadcast. "Now what we think is right and what our viewers think is right may not be the same thing. We know that too."

BTN didn't in 2008. Not with hockey at least. The same can be said about opening weekend of conference play in 2013 even if the decision to have ESPNU host the opening game was not theirs.

At the same time, there is some hope for the six additional regular season games broadcast on ESPNU and ESPNews. BTN's hockey coverage has come a long way since airing a press conference in the middle of a hockey game with no other option.

Maybe the Big Ten Network has taken a look at changes to make to please a passionate fanbase. Maybe that fanbase has become more accepting of national broadcasts. Or, more than likely, it is a combination of both sides making an effort and getting more familiar with one another.

There is no reason ESPN, the rights holder to the NCAA Tournament, cannot do the same with its remaining games this season. For as infuriating as Friday's game was, there is truly nowhere to go but up. Same goes with Gore if he wants to call more with a lot more research and preparation although it'd be better for a seasoned hockey broadcaster to get the call. Someone who has experience would be a way of ESPNU showing that they are listening.

The Worldwide Leader is a great resource for college hockey. Even if ESPN's Big Ten games want to cater towards a different audience than the little hockey bubble most of us reside in, at the very least, show some respect to the game and give college hockey the seriousness that it deserves.

The more that shines through, the better it looks for everyone.

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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