The World Cup kicks off this Saturday, September 17, at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2. But you won’t see a soccer ball or a bat. This two-week tournament is focused squarely on a hockey puck. A joint effort of the NHLPA and the NHL, and in cooperation with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the Toronto-based event features 8 teams and about 170 of the best players in the NHL. Canada, Czech Republic, USA, (the rest of) Europe, Finland, Russia, Sweden and North America (players 23 and under) are competing.
Unlike the FIFA World Cup, this event doesn’t happen every four years. The last time it was held—and ESPN had the rights then as well—was in 2004, the last time the three bodies decided it would occur. The tourney does have some things in common with the FIFA event, however. “It’s a very intense short story, as I like to call it, versus league play which happens over several months for any sport,” said programming svp Scott Guglielmino. “It also brings it to a national view—you’ve got hockey-playing nations and you also got the North American stars and the European stars. Essentially you got a collection of the world’s best hockey players all getting on the ice at the same city… you’ve got a cauldron of hockey and passion and it all happening in a very condensed period of time.”
Another thing learned from the FIFA World Cup: keep it authentic. “You’ve got to be authentic right out of the gate and you’ve got to have people in there who understand the game, who are passionate about the game in front of and behind the camera. I know that we have checked the box there,” Guglielmino said. Games will be called by NHL studio analyst Barry Melrose, SportsCenter anchors Steve Levy and John Buccigross, and former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes. Though he couldn’t speak to ratings expectations, he does expect the demo to skew younger and for multiplatform usage to be strong. All games will be on the network’s TV Everywhere platform WatchESPN in addition to linear. “We have a lot of consumers who are consuming our content across platforms at this time of year so I think that also provides a great opportunity for us to hopefully drive a big audience.”
A busy time of year indeed. In order to accommodate ESPN’s other commitments, including college football, scheduling began a year ago. Seven games will be on ESPN and nine on ESPN2 and a few on ESPNews. In terms of announcing and coverage, there’s less of a need to educate viewers on the ins and outs of the sport, as was sometimes the case during the FIFA World Cup. Americans know their hockey. “I would say that hockey is a mature sport in terms of the general public knowing it and understanding it,” Guglielmino said. There will be some education in terms of the last World Cup of Hockey, however, with vignettes and stories from the 2004 competition. But since there’s no telling whether we’ll get another one in four years, ESPN is treating it only as it can: a one-off event. “In this particular instance we are totally focused on this event… and showcasing the best players in the world,” Guglielmino said. “Part of this is to help the NHL and the NHLPA firmly establish the World Cup of Hockey again, and that’s where we’re focused on for the next month.”