Kraken television play-by-play broadcaster John Forslund sees “an interesting frontier” ahead for the NHL now that its dual U.S. national television-rights holders have been named.
Forslund, who remains one of NBC’s lead hockey broadcasters through the upcoming playoffs, said Thursday that new NHL partners ESPN and Turner Sports are inheriting a TV hockey landscape “solidified” by his network the past 15 years. Turner this week became the league’s secondary rights holder with a seven-year agreement worth at least $1.57 billion, joining ESPN’s primary deal of seven years, $2.8 billion announced in March.
“With sports, it isn’t brain surgery — people just want to be entertained,” Forslund said. “You have to have a good product. You have to have a good game to kind of surround everything else. So if you bring a little personality, you prop up the players and you tell some stories, I mean, that’s a winning formula.
“And if you do it with the right resources, I think the timing is really good for the fans. Especially with our new (Kraken) team coming in.”
The NHL will earn about $625 million a season off the combined deals, more than double its current $300 million annual U.S. national TV and streaming rights intake. New Kraken supporters and longtime hockey fans nationwide should see visible and, for many, welcome changes across multiple platforms to a U.S. product under NBC’s main control since 2005.
“They both come, obviously, with tremendous credibility in the sports world,” Forslund said of the two networks. “In ESPN’s case it was pretty obvious. And then with Turner they’ve been able to put their stamp on their product and their properties.”
Though the ESPN deal, which takes effect next season, gives it four of the next seven Stanley Cup Finals — to be shown on ABC — it’s the smaller Turner Sports component of games on its TNT and TBS cable networks that is expected to create the biggest change. TNT has been widely heralded for its NBA coverage and Inside the NBA studio show featuring outspoken Hall of Famer Charles Barkley.
Turner parent company WarnerMedia also owns HBO Max — which will live stream some NHL games — and Bleacher Report and its successful House of Highlights video sports content platform that is popular with younger viewers.
In a conference call with media members, WarnerMedia News and Sports Chairman Jeff Zucker said: “Obviously, I think there’s a style to Turner Sports and there’s an approach, and we want to bring that same approach to the NHL. But you can’t just copy Inside the NBA on Thursday nights. That comes together over time and relationships.”
Zucker added that he nonetheless wants the NHL package to have a similar “innovative, fun and dynamic” approach.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, on the same call with Zucker, welcomed those words.
“That’s what we’re excited about,” he said. “We’re counting on it.”
Barkley is a self-professed huge hockey fan, so there’s speculation he’ll make crossover appearances. But Turner could also seek an outspoken former hockey player equivalent to Barkley, something NBC attempted with Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury before both were fired in separate cases for making what were deemed inappropriate public comments about women.
Forslund does see Turner perhaps heading that direction.
“It could be somebody brand new that we don’t even expect,” Forslund said. “There are also others you could look at that have either done it or are involved in other ventures like podcasts and things like that.”
Former Phoenix Coyotes winger Paul Bissonnette, popular with fans as a player and now as co-host of the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast owned by Barstool Sports, quickly jumps to mind. But that podcast is also where Roenick made his comments about women, so it remains to be seen where the NHL and its new TV partners will go.
Retired Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks defenseman Kevin Bieksa has also been widely praised as an outspoken, second-year analyst with Sportsnet in Canada. Unlike Barkley and fellow TNT studio analyst Shaquille O’Neal, Bieksa, Bissonnette and other hockey personalities such as Milbury, Roenick, Barry Melrose and Don Cherry (or arguably the most notorious hockey analyst of all-time) were not Hall of Famers.
“The thing about the Turner basketball show and if you look at Fox with baseball, they bring in Hall of Famers,” Forslund said. “They bring in Hall of Fame players that also have big, big, big personalities. That’s a tough mix. Hockey over the years, really, by the nature of the game … hockey players are not like that. So to find someone that is that package, I mean, maybe they will.”
Among hockey’s Hall of Famers with outsized personalities and TV experience, former St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars great Brett Hull checks all boxes. Hull, 56, worked briefly as an analyst for NBC in 2006-07 and alongside Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada during that year’s Cup final.
Women could also get an increased role on future NHL broadcasts, with host Kathryn Tappen having handled the most prominent studio work by a woman in NBC’s coverage.
North of the border, Jennifer Botterill, a former Canadian national team and professional hockey player — and the sister of Kraken assistant general manager Jason Botterill — has been praised as a breakout star in her NHL analyst’s debut with Sportsnet this season. Botterill worked in the studio alongside Tappen during a groundbreaking March 2020 all-women broadcast of a St. Louis-Chicago game on NBC.
Botterill’s former national team counterpart, Cassie Campbell-Pascall, has worked on air as a reporter and analyst for Hockey Night in Canada since 2006.
Forslund said studio work is “a different animal” from calling games at the rink because of its crafted, pre-produced content. He said U.S. networks have “tried to emulate Hockey Night in Canada” for years, especially with the quality of its studio presentation.
But he doesn’t see much difference these days between broadcasts on both sides of the border.
“In the states it’s a little bit different, because there maybe isn’t that built-in (hockey) knowledge with everybody that maybe there is in Canada,” he said. “But some of that’s overrated.”
Forslund can’t say whether he’ll be part of whatever’s next. Though the Kraken would allow him some national work alongside handling all of its locally televised games on ROOT Sports, he’s still focused on finishing his NBC assignments.
Forslund feels NBC’s “total rebrand” of the NHL’s U.S. TV product leaves a strong legacy for ESPN and Turner to build off. Everything from NBC repositioning the league’s former Versus cable partner into NBCSN a decade ago, to growing the Winter Classic series of outdoor games, to the familiar voice of former lead announcer Mike “Doc” Emrick is something Forslund sees as having vaulted the league forward.
“The new rights holders will rebrand, but I think they’re going to be in a different place,” he said. “They’re going to be in a place to take over something that’s been pretty tight over the years.”