by Eric Fulton
The 2021-2022 National Hockey League season kicked off its 105th season on October 12th, and it began in a big way by entering a new era in their television production. The NHL returned to ESPN for the first time since 2004 with the reigning two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ironically, the last time ESPN broadcasted an NHL game was when the Lightning won their first championship in June 2004.
When the NHL canceled the entire 2004-2005 season, ESPN decided not to renew its TV rights to the sport and the sport rarely even got the slightest bit of time on “SportsCenter.” When the NHL returned, the NBC Sports Group brought exclusive television rights of the NHL. For 16 years, NBC introduced sports fans to players such as Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Connor McDavid as the NHL reintroduced itself to the next generation of great talent.
While it was great to see hockey back on television, NBC lacked much of an audience as hockey became more of a niche sport in America. Whether the games were on the main NBC channel or their 24-hour sports channel, NBCSN, they lacked ratings. One game a lot of fans would watch is the NHL Winter Classic, a showcase outdoor game that happens every New Year’s Day. When it was decided that NBCSN was going to shut down as a network in late 2021, the NHL decided it was time to move on and get new television partners.
Once ESPN brought back hockey, the NHL needed at least another TV partner to showcase the excellent talent they already have while hoping to have more people invested in the sport. The NHL also added TNT as another new TV partner to display the NHL like they already display the NBA. It is a solid move for the NHL to have two TV partners. TNT’s first night of covering the NHL was October 13th, one night after ESPN’s debut. They featured a doubleheader between the New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks vs. Colorado Avalanche.
Much of the talent from the NBC and NBCSN days are now with either ESPN or TNT. Brian Boucher joined the ESPN crew alongside familiar faces Steve Levy, John Buccigross and Barry Melrose. Hockey Hall of Famers Chris Chelios and Mark Messier also joined the ESPN crew. On TNT, studio host Liam McHugh, Anson Carter, Keith Jones, and commentators Kenny Albert and Eddie Olczyk come over from NBCSN. Also joining the TNT crew is none other than the greatest hockey player ever, Wayne Gretzky. To me, it is huge for a new network like TNT to bring on the greatest player in the sport to give his thoughts on a weekly basis on the sport he dominated.
TNT will air their games on Wednesday nights during the regular season, right between its Tuesday and Thursday night coverage of the NBA. Right now, they are showing one game a week during the late night hours. Starting in January, they will have two games every Wednesday. TNT will also air the two Outdoor Games to be played in 2022. The annual NHL Winter Classic will air on January 1 in Minnesota, while the Stadium Series game will air on February 26th in Nashville. ESPN, along with ABC, ESPN+ and Hulu will carry games multiple times a week throughout the regular season. Seventy-five regular season games will air exclusively on ESPN+ and Hulu. ESPN and TNT will have the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the spring with each network alternating homes for the Stanley Cup Final in June.
Having watched a couple of games on both networks, I will say that each network is heavily invested in bringing new fans to the game of hockey. The broadcast for both networks seem very crisp and the game by game flow is well documented. I know many sports fans will likely watch other things when hockey is on the air, but having multiple networks dedicated to the NHL is very vital for the sport to grow interest among viewers in the United States. Both ESPN and TNT have a golden opportunity to get new fans watching the NHL and I know they will do everything in their power to make the games watchable and fun.
by Julian Spivey
Superstar: Atlanta Braves
The Atlanta Braves defeated the Houston Astros 7-0 on Tuesday, Nov. 2 to clinch the team’s first World Series title since 1995 and the fourth in franchise history (the second in Atlanta). The Braves remarkable run from under .500 in early August and without the team’s best player in the injured Ronald Acuna Jr. was one of the biggest Cinderella stories in baseball in some time. The Braves were underdogs the entire way – expected to lose to the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLDS, expected to lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS and expected to lose to the Astros in the World Series. None of those series were ever really in doubt for the Braves as they went 11-5 throughout the playoffs with only one loss at their home ballpark. The Braves managed to completely turn the season around shortly after the trade deadline when general manager Alex Anthopoulos added outfielders Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario before the deadline. All four of those players played a massive role for the Braves in the postseason and along with solid offense from Freddie Freeman and Austin Riley and terrific pitching, especially from the bullpen the Braves just got hot at the right time and rode the heatwave all the way to the championship trophy.
Bonehead: Aaron Rodgers
In the span of one day Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers may have gone from one of the most popular players in the NFL to one of the most despised, especially after an appearance on The Pat McAfee Show when he acted like he was the victim despite having lied to the press and American people by saying he was vaccinated against Covid-19 when he, in fact, wasn’t. Honestly, it wouldn’t be a huge deal if Rodgers hadn’t lied and if he had been following the proper protocols all season for players who weren’t vaccinated. But apparently Rodgers doesn’t believe he has to follow the league’s rules. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport has reported that Rodgers will not be suspended by the NFL for potential COVID violations, but that an investigation has been opened and Rodgers and the Packers organization could both faces fines if it’s deemed protocol has been broken – and it would appear it has as Rodgers has given press conferences unmasked this season, which non-vaccinated players aren’t supposed to do. I think it’s bad that the league isn’t even considering suspending Rodgers for breaking protocol, especially given how serious of an issue this is. He should be made an example of.
by Julian Spivey
The NASCAR Cup Series champion will be crowned at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Nov. 7 and, unlike many seasons, the Championship 4 drivers truly seem like the right four drivers from the 2021 Cup season as a whole: Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott.
Larson, Hamlin, Truex Jr. and Elliott have been arguably the four best and most consistent drivers of the season, even if there are drivers like Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney with more race wins than Hamlin and Elliott.
It’s incredibly hard to predict a champion for a NASCAR series because the criteria for winning the title once the Championship 4 get to the final race of the year, which starting last season has been Phoenix, is simply finishing ahead of the other three drivers. It’s not the fairest way to determine a champion, in my opinion, but it’s the system NASCAR has chosen and seems hell-bent on keeping for maximum entertainment value at the end of the season. If we were giving the championship trophy based on season wins Kyle Larson would have run away with the 2021 title. If it were the old points-only system that NASCAR ran from its creation through the 2003 season I think it might be a fight between Larson and Denny Hamlin for the title this weekend, but I couldn’t find those numbers anywhere.
Because it’s one race and you must finish higher than the other three championship drivers anything can affect the outcome – a bad pit stop, being caught up in another driver’s wreck, etc. So, the NASCAR championship is more of a crapshoot than I’d prefer and that’s why it’s so hard to predict. But if every thing goes as planned here’s my predictions and why …
Kyle Larson is the guy to beat when basing the four drivers on their 2021 performance. Larson has won a career-high nine races this season in his first with Hendrick Motorsports. In fact, Larson won three more races this season than he had in his six-plus season career prior when he competed for Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson also has the most top-five and top-10 finishes in the sport this season with 19 and 25 respectively, which is one more in each of those categories than Denny Hamlin. When it comes to the important average finish statistical category Hamlin had the better season averaging an 8.6 place finish to Larson’s 9.3 place finish. Chase Elliott, who won two races this season (both at road courses) has 14 top-fives, 20 top-10s and an average finish of 11.5. Truex Jr. was tied for the second most wins during the 2021 season with four, had 12 top-fives and 19 top-10s with an average finish of 12.3. So, Truex Jr. found Victory Lane more often than Hamlin and Elliott but didn’t run upfront as consistently. Larson had more wins this season nine than the other three championship drivers combined (eight).
Advantage: Kyle Larson
Here’s where things get a little more interesting for the championship race this weekend. It’s clear Kyle Larson had the best 2021 season of the Championship 4. There’s no debate. But Larson might be the worst of these four drivers at Phoenix Raceway. That could come into play on Sunday or maybe it won’t at all considering much of Larson’s career at Phoenix came with Chip Ganassi Racing, which is basically a second-tier team to the rides his competitors in this championship fight have had throughout their careers.
None of these four drivers have dominated the track in the past, but honestly due to a reconfiguration recently it doesn’t run like it did for the majority of Hamlin and Truex’s careers. Three of these drivers have won at Phoenix before and all three have done so in the last three seasons since that reconfiguration. Hamlin has two wins at Phoenix (2012 and 2019) with the 2012 win coming before the reconfiguration. Elliott won at the track in the championship race last year to clinch his first career championship. Truex Jr. won the race at Phoenix earlier this season in March leading 64 of 312 laps. So, the championship favorite Larson is the only driver not to reach Victory Lane at the track. Hamlin finished third in March leading 33 laps. Elliott finished fifth in March and Larson finished seventh and led one lap.
I’m going to look at the last six races at Phoenix Raceway the rest of the way because that’s how many events the track has held since its reconfiguration in 2018. Hamlin has the most top five finishes in those six races with four. Larson has the most top-10 finishes in those six races with five, but because he didn’t compete in last year’s title race he’s not finished outside of the top-10 since the reconfiguration. Truex has two top-fives and four top-10s in those six races and Elliott has two top-fives and three top-10s.
It’s hard to know who has the advantage here because Larson has been in the top-10 the most, but he’s also the only driver of the four to not win at this track. Because of the four top-fives in the six races and a previous win on the reconfiguration I’m giving the advantage here to …
Advantage: Denny Hamlin
So, who’s going to win the championship?
Based on the dominance on the track this year it could be considered somewhat of a travesty if Kyle Larson isn’t the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion. However, I can’t ignore the fact that of all these drivers it’s Denny Hamlin who’s been at this the longest without a title to his legend. With 46 Cup wins he’s second to only Junior Johnson (50) in NASCAR history with most wins without a championship and Johnson almost never, if ever, competed in a full-time season as a driver. So, one could make the argument that Hamlin is probably the greatest driver in the history of the sport without a championship. He’s a future Hall of Famer, no doubt, but his career is also incomplete without a title, and I think he’s pissed right now. I think he’s going to be the most aggressive driver at Phoenix going for that championship. That may work for him, or it may work against him, but I have a gut feeling that Hamlin just wants this championship a bit more than the other three.
I could be wrong about this. I’ve picked Hamlin to win the title going into the final race of the season before and been wrong. But my official prediction to win the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship is …
2021 NASCAR Champion: Denny Hamlin