Takeaways from TNT's first foray into NHL broadcasting

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WASHINGTON , DC - OCTOBER 13: Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) waves to the crowd after he scored and advanced to number 5 on the all-time NHL scoring list during action against the New York Rangers at Capital One Arena. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The first NHL broadcast on TNT was a strong follow-up to ESPN's coverage. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The NHL has something here.

One night after ESPN's impressive return to hockey broadcasting, TNT proved that strong coverage won't be limited to one network.

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Leaning hard on its proven and unmistakable between-halfs (and now periods) strategy, and with the help of a familiar face in Charles Barkley, TNT captured much of the essence of Inside the NBA with its all-new, all-hockey panel. It accomplished something few have provided, which is entertaining hockey analysis.

Here are some thoughts on Night 1 of the NHL on TNT:

Panel has promise

There was some reason to be skeptical. Not because it's impossible to be entertaining between periods, but because the shoes would be so difficult to fill — at least immediately. TNT has set the standard when it comes to panel work, and expecting any combination to come together to provide even a reasonable imitation seemed too much to ask.

Even so, host Liam McHugh and analysts Wayne Gretzky, Rick Tocchet, Anson Carter, and Paul Bissonnette did show real potential, shedding the customary rigidity rather quickly and accomplishing the most important thing, which is to have fun.

No doubt Barkley helped with this. His inclusion was deliberate and incredibly smart on the part of the executive team. A friend of Gretzky's already, Barkley strapped on the pads and had Gretzky fire foam pucks at him during the first intermission. That was after a segment on the pre-game show where they had Barkley rip Gretzky over one of his few fights and embarrassing moments on the ice.

Barkley's self-deprecation, a hallmark among TNT panelists, seemed to spread throughout the broadcast after he showed up. It led to maybe the most effective bit from the pre-game show with the humanizing of Gretzky, who was built up (somewhat awkwardly) before being brought back down — which is, in itself, a hockey hallmark. Count me among those who didn't expect the entire panel to be ripping on The Great One's sweater vest.

Relying on what has worked for TNT — a panel not taking itself too seriously — was key to this unveiling. And by using those easy tricks like pulling up tweets from viewers to poke fun at one another, we heard a staple from Inside the NBA broadcasts, which is the panel laughing hysterically or bickering into the commercial break. This sounds simple enough, but it's both hard to manufacture and undeniably effective.

It seems the panel will also be used to interview players afterwards, and hopefully these will be more fun than the standard post-game interview, given the personalities. That's when Bissonnette could really shine.

Professional between panels

Unlike the panel, we knew exactly what to expect from the in-game broadcasts. With Kenny Albert and Brendan Burke providing play-by-play and seasoned veterans Eddie Olczyk, Keith Jones and Darren Pang doing the colour, TNT has assembled the sort of broadcast crews that will provide undeniably professional and strong calls of games. The only unproven entity was Jamal Mayers, who handled the between-the-bench duties for the second game.

It is a separate world, the in-game broadcast compared to the panel work. And what seemed to prove that notion most was the one effort made to overlap when Gretzky joined Albert, Olczyk, and Jones to discuss Alex Ovechkin and his pursuit of Gretzky's goals record. It was maybe a touch ambitious in the moment, though having Gretzky around to discuss Ovechkin's chase (and interview him after games) is a nice touch.

It was a very cool moment when Gretzky led his question for Ovechkin with, "Hey Alex, Wayne here" when the panel interviewed him after the game. That Ovechkin scored twice in the contest surely didn't hurt the broadcast.

Besides superimposing a power-play clock on the ice, TNT relied more on a quality call, strong graphics packages, and of course, the panel, while ESPN tried on a few new and ambitious features Tuesday night. Putting on a quality broadcast is really all that mattered, but there is room to innovate for TNT.

Digital shorts

TNT is launching brand-new social channels along with its hockey coverage, and appears ready to lean into the growth of them. Shooting a simple digital short with Bissonnette to run on both the pre-game show and on social media is an effective tool, and a strong use of a big hockey personality.

Hopefully we see more of these:

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