John Buccigross and hockey hearts overjoyed NHL is returning to ESPN

Hockey holdovers let their passion for the NHL shine through even after ESPN's broadcast rights went to NBC in 2005.

ESPN
“I was surprised after the announcement how emotional I got,” John Buccigross said of ESPN's deal with the NHL. –ESPN

It was a rather happy week for John Buccigross and ESPN’s hockey holdovers.

Buccigross, who has been at ESPN for 25 years as a “SportsCenter” anchor and play-by-play voice, is among a passionate cadre of longtime personalities at the network — among them Linda Cohn, Steve Levy, and Barry Melrose — who continued to let their passion for the NHL shine through even after the broadcast rights went to NBC in 2005.

ESPN didn’t cover the league the past 15 years with quite the depth it would have had it been its broadcast partner, but Buccigross and friends always gave the league its proper due.

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So the news this past week that ESPN had acquired the primary NHL package for seven years and a reported $2.8 billion beginning next season was accompanied by real joy.

“I was surprised after the announcement how emotional I got,” Buccigross said. “I was driving around, and actually started to tear up. It was kind of weird, I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was those 16 or 17 years that we were kind of carrying the torch for the NHL, and to have the hope that it would return to ESPN finally fulfilled.

“I think part of the emotional response for me was that fans kept bringing it up on social media after the news was official, playing the old “NHL 2Night” jingle [Buccigross was a studio host on ESPN and ESPN2′s NHL coverage from from 1998-2004.] Nothing gets into your soul like music, and just hearing a few notes of an old song can bring memories flooding back.

“It made me think about those days. It was kind of cool to still have that reaction after all these years.”

Buccigross said when word of ESPN and the NHL’s new partnership was formally announced, he heard from two current players who said they couldn’t be happier.

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“Of course we want people to engage a certain way with ESPN, to buy the ESPN-plus streaming package, and to respond and interact with our coverage in all the different ways that they’ll be able to,” he said.

“But I think there’s a benefit, too, for the league that ESPN is kind of the country’s wallpaper, as I call it. You know, when you’re walking through an airport, or you’re in a bar late at night — The Greatest Bar, The Fours, The Place back in the day, any bar in Boston, back before the world changed. And there’s music playing and there are people talking, but when you glance up, more often than not “SportsCenter” is on the TV. And you watch. It’s kind of the wallpaper, and so you’re going to see more hockey just from that.”

In announcing the deal during a joint conference call with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman Wednesday, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro said no decisions have been made on the talent used on the broadcasts.

“We’re all kind of waiting to see what our roles are,’’ said Buccigross, who grew up in Pennsylvania but has deep Boston ties and as a kid listened to Bob Wilson call Big, Bad Bruins games on WBZ’s far-reaching signal. “I think management has probably known for the last couple of months at least that this was going to work out. I’m sure they’ve started thinking about shows and talent and sort of outline everything, sort of like how a team prepares for the draft.”

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Buccigross, whose parents hail from South Boston and whose dad, Edward, is an athletic legend at Boston Latin, turned 56 years old in January. He has been in the sports television and radio business for 32 years, since he began working at Cape 11 in South Yarmouth in 1989.

At this point in his career, he has a particular passion for play-by-play. His experience includes calling the 2015 Frozen Four in Boston and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He’s hopeful of having a significant role now that the sport is returning to ESPN.

“I’m not the guy you’ll see on television when I’m 70 years old, still broadcasting,” he said. “I’m too much of a homebody. I’m such a perfectionist, and it works so hard in my head. I live in my head, and it’s taxing over time. So to be able to maybe finish up primarily covering hockey, for another 5 to 7 years, with the new deal being seven years long. That could be just an amazing way to complete my career here.”

WEEI’s Gresh motivated

It’s been a few years now — probably since WEEI’s Kirk and Callahan show verbally duked it out with the Sports Hub’s Toucher and Rich program for morning-drive ratings supremacy — that there has been a truly contentious battle in any Boston sports radio time slot. But we may have a new one now, with Andy Gresh joining Rich Keefe on Monday on WEEI’s midday program. Gresh and Keefe will go up against the Sports Hub’s “Zolak and Bertrand” program, and he’ll be motivated. Gresh preceded Marc Bertrand as Scott Zolak’s co-host on the show, but was let go despite good ratings early in 2015, in part because his personality rubbed some people the wrong way behind the scenes. The “Zolak and Bertrand” show, which also features Rob “Hardy” Poole, draws excellent ratings — it had a 15.3 share, first in the market in its target demographic in the fall, while Keefe and the now-retired Dale Arnold had a 4.1. Gresh-to-WEEI has been fait accompli for a while, and while I don’t consider it the most inspiring choice, he’s certainly not going to go into competing against the station and show that dumped him quietly.

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