As far as Russian debuts in the United States go, ESPN's opening 2012 broadcast of the Kontinental Hockey League on Tuesday wasn't exactly Baryshnikov at the American Ballet Theater. The game, shown live on ESPN2 at 1 p.m. Eastern time with a replay at 8, was a dud. Dynamo Moscow topped HC Lev Praha 1-0 on an unmemorable third-period goal by Alex Ovechkin. But give the Worldwide Leader in European hockey (at least for one day) credit for doing something the NHL isn't doing these days: facilitating live coverage of games.
While the play was desultory -- it made a viewer long for an NHL preseason game, which would be unbridled excitement by comparison -- the broadcast was surreal. Not Mark Gastineau-surreal but a funhouse of ad libs, Cold War comedy, and a focus far away from the play on the ice. The announcers (Steve Levy and Barry Melrose) called the game from a voice-over booth at ESPN's Bristol headquarters -- some 4,200 miles away from the action at Prague's O2 Arena -- and their lack of familiarity with some of the KHL's figures provided viewers with memorable moments including this exchange:
Levy: "Josef Janda � is the head coach for Lev Praha. What do you know about him, Barry?"
Melrose: "Not a thing, Steve. I'm not going to sit here and lie to the audience."
When it came to identifying the NHL players (Zdeno Chara, Jiri Hudler, Ovechkin and Jakub Voracek) and those with league connections (Lev Praha's Marcel Hossa, the younger brother of Blackhawks star Marian), Levy and Melrose were in familiar waters. But the broadcasters' lack of familiarity with both rosters was clear as they often identified players by position or team rather than last name.
"Any reason I give you for that would come off as an excuse so lets just say calling a hockey game long distance off a monitor with no communication to the broadcast truck provides for some challenges, which we tried our best to overcome in a voice-over booth," Levy told SI.com after the game. "It was not ideal but it was hockey and that's always a good thing"
Credit Levy for addressing the question, and neither he nor Melrose pretended to be KHL savants. They spent much of the broadcast discussing NHL issues rather than the build-up of play on the ice.
"I thought there was more value to Barry talking about the NHL lockout among other topics than me naming players no one in our audience has ever heard of who were making insignificant plays," Levy said. "I did try and focus on current NHLers or those who have played in the past in North America. We offered some background material on those players."
If Cold War jokes are your thing, this was a broadcast for you. Throughout the game, Melrose channeled his inner Yakov Smirnoff and at one point referenced the Soviet Union in the present tense. He also tagged a replay official as "Ivan," and explained that astronauts in Russia were called cosmonauts. (You don't say?).
There was also the second period intermission where hockey fans were treated to....college football analyst David Pollack. He waxed on about Notre Dame football and West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith before a short feature aired about the Boston Celtics traveling abroad. Not exactly "Coach's Corner" with Don Cherry.
Yahoo! Sports' hockey guru Greg Wyshynski said the broadcast "reminded me of calling high-school football games with the rest of my buddies in the AV club" He provided an entertaining live blog of the broadcast here.
The KHL provided the feed of the game and while viewers got multiple replays of Ovechkin's goal, the broadcast was at the mercy of the KHL's direction and rules. For instance, ESPN viewers missed some game action because the KHL does not have commercial breaks. (That philosophy is unlikely to catch on in America.)
The broadcast did have some excellent moments, including Levy and Melrose thoughtfully examining the hotel and restaurant workers impacted by the NHL lockout, an acknowledgment of the passing of Red Wings public address announcer Budd Lynch, and Levy referencing that ESPN was not at the point yet when John Buccigross would be hosting "KHL Tonight."
Naturally, there was plenty of commentary on Twitter, including the performance of the announcers and ESPN's newfound love of hockey. Others thanked ESPN for airing the sport.
The KHL/ESPN alliance (cue the Imperial March theme from Star Wars) is not new, but the terms have changed. ESPN had a pre-existing distribution partnership with the KHL to deliver games weekly through ESPN3, which aired more than 50 during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, and carried the league's All-Star Game in 2010, but with NHL stars playing overseas during the lockout, the network saw an opportunity. It negotiated a new one-year deal for minimal cost (five figures) that upped the available inventory of games.
John Lasker, Vice President, Programming and Acquisitions for ESPN3 and the network's point person on the deal, said he and a counterpart at the KHL hashed out a deal via emails and phone calls over a four-week period. "When we have an opportunity to serve a fan base that we think is looking for content and is underserved, we are going to take advantage of it," Lasker said. "We think it's a great product. Hopefully, this serves as a buffer between now and when the NHL gets back on the ice."
Hockey fans have long argued that ESPN does not care about their sport, but ESPN is committed to the KHL at least in the short term. It will carry six additional KHL games through Oct. 29. Those games are scheduled to stream over ESPN3, which is available in more than 73 million U.S. households.
Lasker said there is no specific viewership target in order for ESPN to air games beyond October, but it is a possibility. Network officials will survey the interest and enthusiasm from viewers and decide whether they want to keep airing games weekly. Asked if an NHL return would immediately end the airing of KHL games on ESPN3, Lasker said that would not be the case.
"We'll take it step by step and week by week," he said. "We might have a lot of momentum with the KHL. Who knows? There might be enough room for viewership of the KHL while the NHL is going on."