Sidelines with Silverstein: A New Era for Watching the NHL


Alex Brandon/AP Photo

BIGGER STAGES: The Oct. 13 matchup between the Rangers and the Capitals was one of the first NHL games to be featured on TNT this season.

May 4, 2009 gave NHL fans one of the most electrifying and memorable games in recent history. In Game 2 of the second round of the playoffs, The Washington Capitals took on the defending Eastern Conference Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and what went down in our nation’s capital that night will forever be remembered as the Dueling Hat Tricks game. Entering the primes of their storied careers, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin kept trading goals, ending an intense matchup with three apiece. It was a watershed moment for the league, as its two brightest stars of the generation lit it up for the world to see.

Well, maybe not for the world to see. Every big hockey fan remembers this game, but does anybody remember what channel they tuned into to watch it? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t ESPN, or TNT, or NBC or any of the major sports networks. No, if you wanted to watch this primetime, historic matchup, you had to watch it on Versus. What’s Versus? Well, to provide some context, some of the other sports the channel broadcasted during its existence included the World Series of Off-Road Racing, Chuck Norris’ World Combat League and rugby. 

Now, as hockey begins its second stint under the significantly more popular channel ESPN and debuts with TNT, it seems strange to look back upon the Versus era, which ended in 2011 due to a merger with NBC Sports. Was hockey that much of a fringe sport to have its big playoff games broadcasted on a channel that boasted a strange mix of extreme sports and lesser-known leagues? 

What I do know is that since the league’s darkest hour in 2004-2005, when the entire season was cancelled due to disputes over the implementation of the salary cap, the game of hockey has been steadily on an upward trajectory. Rule changes after the lockout made the game faster and more high-scoring. A speedier sport made way for young talents like Crosby and Ovechkin to burst onto the scene and give new life to hockey after a period in the league’s history known as the Dead-Puck era, a period from the late 90s to the early 2000s that kept giving fans low-scoring games and choppier play. At the end of the day, stars allow sports to gain popularity, and Crosby and Ovechkin are now passing the torch on to the likes of Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Auston Matthews and probably the best skater in league history, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers. The game has gotten more fun, the league has seen more superstars emerge and ESPN and TNT have hopped on the train.

My hope is that ESPN and TNT take a sport already trending upwards and help it explode in popularity. Hockey is just too beautiful a game to be on the fringe of sports coverage. I am excited for the next great moments in the history of the game and equally as pumped that so many new fans across the world will get to witness them.