One of Wayne Gretzky’s few disappointments with his first year as a studio analyst for Turner Sports came on Jan. 1, when he and the rest of the panel watched the Winter Classic from a cozy studio in Atlanta rather than a frigid ballpark in Minnesota.
“I missed out on that,” Gretzky told The Athletic back in February. “Being able to actually be at the biggest events, having the panel at those events, that’s what I really envision as something I think we need more of. I get it, but it was still disappointing.”
That feeling was one of the reasons Gretzky ended up making a booth cameo for the Heritage Classic in Hamilton while the rest of the panel was still in Atlanta, and on Tuesday he happily fielded a media conference call from Denver, where the TNT panel will be on location for Game 1 of the Western Conference final and will follow the series between the Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers in person.
“This past season — partly because of the pandemic, partly because of issues with the border — everyone’s made the decision to sort of stay in-house,” Gretzky said Tuesday. “So it just gives us sort of a stamp that people who actually watch us on TV will be able to see us live and so you know, when you’re live (and) when you feel the atmosphere, and you can hear the atmosphere and you can hear the loud noise and the crowd cheering, the energy level obviously is a positive.”
It’ll also be the exclamation point on a rookie season for TNT as a national carrier in the United States. ESPN, which has the national television “A” package, will be broadcasting the Stanley Cup Final, with Turner getting the championship series in 2023.
It should be noted that TNT ended up with the Western Conference final because ESPN had the choice of which series to broadcast before the Stanley Cup Final. The fact the Western final was guaranteed to have a Canadian market, and the fact the Rangers were potentially headed to the Eastern final made it a pretty quick decision from a viewership perspective for ESPN.
Some Game 7 TV numbers in the States: NYR-PIT 2.3 million on TNT TB-TOR 1.7 on TNT CAR-BOS 1.6 on ESPN EDM-LA 1.1 on ESPN CGY-DAL 1.01 on ESPN
The NYR-PIT game was the most-viewed first round game on cable for all time.
— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) May 17, 2022
By most accounts, Turner’s presence has been considered a success for the league in the United States.
Ratings for Turner and ESPN both surpassed expectations, and Round 1 was the most-watched first round on cable in the history of the league. That included an average of 2.3 million viewers for Game 7 between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins on TNT, which was the most-watched non-Stanley Cup Final game on cable since 2018.
Ratings for Round 2 are expected to come in on Wednesday, according to Turner PR.
TNT’s panel, which is hosted by Liam McHugh and features Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter and Rick Tocchet, alongside Gretzky, has been well received by personnel around the league, including one team executive who recently noted that for the first time in their tenure they cared to listen to what was said on the American broadcast during an intermission.
Gretzky’s comfort level and candor on air have been particularly notable; going into this season there were concerns, even for Gretzky himself, that he would be too stiff or uncomfortable on television. Getting over that hurdle early was key for Gretzky, who gives a ton of credit to both Tocchet and Bissonnette for disarming some of those concerns with early quips — while his No. 99 is untouchable and retired across the league, Gretzky wasn’t immune from being the butt of a joke.
“That was the biggest thing we talked about before we started our first show,” Gretzky said. “If this is going to work, you know you can’t fake that.”
Earlier this season McHugh told The Athletic that being allowed to make jokes at Gretzky’s expense made any other nerves in his new role disappear, and after years at NBC, which had a more rigid studio format, McHugh was able to be his more authentic self when the camera was on.
“We don’t have to be two different people on and off the camera,” McHugh said. “That’s a huge thing for how this group built that chemistry right away.”
The other thing that Turner did with its panel, and its hockey coverage in general, was to rely on consistent pairings more than ESPN did with its coverage of the sport. Turner picked roles for its hockey coverage and stuck with them and the panel was allowed to adjust as a group, while in-game roles were also set without too much juggling.
ESPN’s coverage has been more of a hodgepodge of roles, with some of the on-air voices going from play-by-play to studio hosting and back again during the playoffs. Part of this is by design — ESPN admitted early on that it would be flexible in assigning roles, and it’s also a side effect of ESPN staying in-house for play-by-play roles.
Turner, on the other hand, made two outside hires for play-by-play before the season started — Kenny Albert and Brendan Burke — and then hired team broadcasters for the playoffs when the schedule required more play-by-play voices. It was an approach that led to a stronger on-air product early in the playoffs, with Turner carrying a team of play-by-play voices that were typical hockey announcers and not just simply announcers doing hockey.
As for Gretzky, he’ll enjoy being in the vicinity of Albert this series in both Denver and Edmonton as part of the panel, which is just close enough after he got a taste of in-game analysis during the outdoor game with booth veterans Ed Olczyk, Darren Pang and Keith Jones.
“Their jobs are safe. That’s not for me,” Gretzky joked. “Those three guys, they do, they work a lot harder than we do in that panel. Trust me.”
(Photo of Keith Jones and Wayne Gretzky at the 2022 NHL Heritage Classic: Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)