Ongoing thoughts about ESPN’s Frozen Four hockey coverage

Posted by: Nate Wells

The 2013 Frozen Four is a great opportunity to witness one of UMass-Lowell, Yale, St. Cloud State or Quinnipiac win their first NCAA hockey national championship in Pittsburgh. It’s also the only chance all year to see ESPN and ESPN2 show any hockey

This year brings something new to the table. Longtime Frozen Four play-by-play voice Gary Thorne, who has long been associated with the event, is out. Sportscenter anchor and former NHL2Night host John Buccigross is now alongside color commentator Barry Melrose and interviewer Clay Matvick.

With that in mind, I thought it’d be a good idea to track the ESPN coverage of the Frozen Four as it unfolds. This will be updated with thoughts from the second semifinal and championship game as they are played.

Thoughts from Game #1 – Yale vs. UMass-Lowell

-From the opening puck drop, the Consol Energy Center looks more like Grand Rapids on television than hosting the Frozen Four. The 4 :30 p.m. local start on a Thursday and weather across the country didn’t help although the TV seats were filled in as the game went on.

-Buccigross is knowledgeable about college hockey for covering a total of three games this season.  He’s obviously put in hard work and giving the Bulldogs and River Hawks the proper respect they deserve.

-At the same time, if you aren’t a fan of the Sportscenter style and Bucci’s hockey lingo this can be a frustrating listen. Sometimes it seems like there are two color guys in the booth.

-One of the bigger issues I’ve had throughout the Tournament is the number of names being mispronounced. It hasn’t been bad in Yale-UML  outside of one mispronunciation of “Laganiere.”

-Melrose called Lowell just “UMass” a couple times, which I’m guessing angers a certain Joe Meloni.

-Nothing says “Frozen Four” like having the second half of intermission spent covering Tiger Woods and the Masters. It truly is a college hockey tradition unlike  any other.

-One of the hidden gems of ESPN’s coverage is having Dave Starman in the studio with Todd Grisham. While Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos, who joined him for opening weekend, is not there (not sure why the Frozen Four has less people in studio than the first two rounds), Starman is one of the best at analysis. He covers it throughout the year and gives thoughtful answers to Grisham’s questions.

-Grisham can play the role of a straight man. Plus he did pronounce “Johnny Goo-dreau” correctly.

-Barry Melrose at times came off as giving vague analysis rather than more insight. He followed the game well yet there isn’t much to grasp that a casual fan can pick up. There’s no story, explanation of styles or going through why the players on the ice have gotten have gotten this far and what it means to them.

To me, that’s one of the big things that the few games – the biggest of the college hockey season – on the WWL can do for the sport. Otherwise it is just a couple games.

-ESPN almost missed the second River Hawks goal that happened 14 seconds after Riley Wetmore  scored one.

-Definitely were overused some storylines in this game. Jesse Root is from Pittsburgh, site of the Frozen Four. I know this because he’s been introduced as “Pittsburgh native Jesse Root” enough times like that’s his full name. The Hobey Baker finalists were discussed at each intermission, as was Herb Brooks’ one season coaching St. Cloud State. Guess who is Jake Suter’s father?

-Recently traded Penguins prospect (and Yale forward) Kenny Agostino and still Penguins prospect (and UML forward) Scott Wilson did not get the Root treatment.

-One thing I liked that was the two explaining hybrid icing as one of the factors that makes the college game different from the NHL and their thoughts on it. Those are little things someone who likes hockey but comes across it on the channel wouldn’t understand.

-ESPN went to break in the 3rd period as UML fans were chanting “bullshit.” Well played.

-Melrose said it’s basically OT with 11 minutes left. Even if that turned out to be true, we just watched 2 goals in 14 seconds. Buccigross, however, did bring up Yale’s 4 goal 3rd period against North Dakota.

-ESPN went from Yale winning in overtime to a repeat of “Gruden’s QB Camp” in a span of 2 minutes. No analysis, no look at the crushing low the River Hawks just experienced and no time to cool down.

-Buccigross’ call of Yale captain Andrew Miller’s overtime goal was every bit as big as the moment.   When that gets replayed years later, it’ll be great.

Thoughts on Game #2 – St. Cloud State vs. Quinnipiac

-The Frozen Four intro was well-produced and gave the semifinal game a big time feel with archival footage of past NCAA Hockey Tournament games (ranging from Harvard in 1989 to Minnesota’s Barry Tallackson scoring an OT winner in 2005 to BU’s overtime win in 2009).  It’s one of the things that ESPN does best.

-I’m a Minnesota native. Does America not know which state St. Cloud is located?

-Melrose’s analysis of the second Bobcats goal was along the lines of, “the Huskies can’t stop them.”

-Misprounced names: Melrose with Drew LeBlanc, Eric Hartzell (there was at least one “Hartnell”)

-Although it can be awkward when ESPN shows one of the bands up in a corner, it’s different than other hockey games (both NHL and college). Same with the little shots of the players between commercial breaks.

Can’t go wrong with Quinnipiac’s band playing “Brass Bonanza.”

-Buccigross did a great job bringing casual fans up to speed by explaining Quinnipiac’s situation this season. There is a rich backstory with the Bobcats. Despite being #1 for most of the year, the team’s legitimacy has been questioned by fans and analysts (myself included) for playing in the ECAC. Few teams are both big names and an underdog and Bucci got that across.

(Different note: Single-game tournament or not, Quinnipiac has proven themselves worthy of being a top-2 team for most of the year.)

-When miking the rink goes wrong: Hearing an audible F-Bomb dropped in the first minute of period 2 after a SCSU player tripped over a linesman.

-Clay Matvick has been the third guy at the Frozen Four for years interviewing players between periods. He is a solid reporter/commentator – asking good questions and making it about the players – but doesn’t do much in the age of “between the benches.” At times it would be nice to get Matvick more involved.

-Melrose was at his best pointing out Joey Benik’s positioning on the SCSU freshman’s goal and how it led to the Huskies finally getting on the board. Neither Barry nor Buccigross brought up Benik continuing his play in the tournament, but that’s a nitpick more than anything.

-Great replay by the production crew on David Morley’s charge. I missed the penalty the first time.

-Surprised at how little Quinnipiac goalie Eric Hartzell has come up given his play against a potent St. Cloud State offense.

-At the same time, Dave Starman did a nice job breaking down what the Huskies need to do to beat Hartzell.

-The Bobcats’ 3 goal third period lead allowed for Buccigross and Melrose to be more off-the-cuff and discuss other aspects of hockey rather than the game on the ice. This included Pittsburgh-Tampa in the NHL, Rand Pecknold’s journey to Hamden, Connecticut and the growth of players from non-traditional areas.

-It took a while for the “St. Cloud State empty net” graphic to show up and didn’t stick around for long.

-Quinnipiac didn’t even get the game-ending interview – instead Pac-12 softball is more important.

Overall Thursday thoughts: Things were good production-wise (there was no “South Dakota” or any other noticeable errors) and ESPN made the most out of their studio outside of postgame analysis.

Still, there were times when it was apparent that the WWL doesn’t broadcast many hockey games in both Frozen Four contests. John Buccigross did a good job in his first Frozen Four semis and Barry Melrose and him have some chemistry from calling regional games. However, it isn’t all there as they still are calling their 4th& 5th college hockey games of the season. That’s 1/8 the games of other analysts this year.

Thoughts on Saturday’s NCAA Championship Game – Yale v. Quinnipiac

-College hockey’s championship was pre-empted by SEC regular season softball. Although ESPN cut the end of the game in favor of a quick Yale-QU pregame with Buccigross and Melrose, it’s a major surprise to turn on ESPN at 6 p.m. CT and see LSU-Texas A&M.

-I really enjoy when ESPN uses pregame locker room speeches. CBS Sports Net has done this before as well and it is something I’d love to see more.

-”We’re underway in Pittsburgh” came 25 seconds late  because Clay Matvick was in the middle of a story. That would have been a good time to have an actual pregame show. Opening puck drop is a major deal and to shrug it off doesn’t give the championship game the kind of respect it deserves.

-The duo acknowledged Drew LeBlanc winning the Hobey despite SCSU not playing, as did Dave Starman and Todd Grisham during both intermissions. Although I’ve enjoyed the between period segments, at times the repetition has been overkill.

-Melrose says Zach Tolkinen was injured by “the big forward for Yale” on a hit. Solid analysis  Barry.

-Buccigross explained the change in hand pass rules this year during a 5×3 stretch for Quinnipiac, which was buffered by a  1968 tidbit on scoreless title games (DU-UND).

-Better analysis by Melrose on a lazy clear by Yale goalie Jeff Malcolm, explaining what QU did right and what they could have done better.

-Neither analyst gave up at the end of the second and paid off with Bourbonais’ tip past Eric Hartzell for the game’s first goal with 3.5 seconds left. Melrose in particular pointed out that Quinnipiac wasn’t playing like they had been for the majority of the period and that it came back to bite them.

-Buccigross truly showed the scope of Yale’s accomplishment (beating 3 #1 seeds, big names like Minnesota and North Dakota along with an in-state rival in Quinnipiac).

-The two were even better painting the picture as the seconds ticked down to zero.

-ESPN showed the entire postgame celebration (although there wasn’t any postgame analysis). It was everything Thursday wasn’t.

Final thoughts: ESPN gets a lot of flack for their hockey coverage. Not all of it is deserved, though.

When they do show college hockey and give the broadcast its due (i.e. not being preempted by college softball), the coverage is good. The production is top notch.  There’s a reason why people enjoy watching ESPN and there are a few things that other networks who cover college hockey can learn from them. Buccigross did a fine job in his first year stepping into Gary Thorne’s shoes handling play-by-play although I do wish he and Barry Melrose called more games. They got better as the tournament went on.

And that’s the problem with ESPN covering college hockey. It’s not enough.  When John Buccigross signs off with “we’ll see you in Philadelphia next year,” it’s true. This isn’t college lacrosse, which seems to never stop playing on ESPNU. The Worldwide Leader won’t show another college hockey game until the 2014 NCAA hockey tournament. There is no #1 announcing team in the sport and while Buccigross has a vast knowledge of college hockey, he doesn’t get to show it off outside of six games and random Sportscenter segments.

The Worldwide Leader is among the best to show college hockey when they take it seriously. When it looks like they are running through the motions, giving vague analysis or leaving a game ASAP, however, it gives them and the sport  a bad name.

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