The NHL Network was an American television syndication package that broadcast National Hockey League games from the 1975–76 through 1978–79 seasons. The NHL Network was distributed by the Hughes Television Network.
After being dropped by NBC after the 1974–75 season, the NHL had no national television contract in the United States. In response to this, the league put together a network of independent stations covering approximately 55% of the country.
Games typically aired on Monday nights (beginning at 8:00 p.m. ET) or Saturday afternoons. The package was offered to local stations with no rights fee. Profits would be derived from the advertising, which was about evenly split between the network and the local station. The Monday night games were often billed as The NHL Game of the Week. Viewers in New York City, Buffalo, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Los Angeles got the Game of the Week on a different channel than their local team's games. Therefore, whenever a team had a “home” game, the NHL Network aired the home team's broadcast rather than their own.
Initially, the Monday night package was marketed to ABC affiliates; the idea being that ABC carried Monday-night NFL football in the fall and (starting in May 1976) Monday-night Major League Baseball in the spring and summer, stations would want hockey to create a year-round Monday night sports block. But very few ABC stations picked up the package.
During the 1975–76 season, the NHL Network showed selected games from the NHL Super Series (the big one in that package was Red Army at Philadelphia, but the package didn't include Red Army at Montreal on New Year's Eve 1975, which was seen only on CBC) as well as some playoff games. During the 1976–77 season, the NHL Network showed 12 regular season games on Monday nights plus the All-Star Game. By 1978–79 (the final season of the NHL Network's existence), there would be 18 Monday night games and 12 Saturday afternoon games covered.
The 1979 Challenge Cup replaced the All-Star Game. It was a best of three series between the NHL All-Stars against the Soviet Union national squad. Only the third period of Game 2, which was on a Saturday afternoon, was shown on CBS as part of The CBS Sports Spectacular. The network, the show, and their sponsors had a problem with the rink board advertising that the NHL sold at Madison Square Garden, and refused to allow them to be shown on TV. As a result, CBS' viewers were unable to see the far boards above the yellow kickplate, and could only see players' skates when the play moved to that side of the ice. Games 1 and 3 were shown on the NHL Network, where the advertising was no problem.
When Saturday afternoon games were added, the NHL said that they would start at 1 p.m. and end by 4 p.m. ET. Apparently, markets with only three stations were reluctant to give up prime time programming slots. Ultimately, the plan failed, as not only did they not gain new markets, many stations that already carried the Monday game didn't pick up the Saturday one. A few of the markets in the Eastern Time Zone that aired the Saturday afternoon games included Boston, Buffalo, New York, Washington and Springfield, MA.
In addition, the NHL gave stations the option of starting the Saturday afternoon broadcasts at 1 Eastern time or starting at 2 EST, with the full open and a first period summary preceding live action of the final two periods. WDCA (the Washington, D.C. affiliate) and WWLP (the Springfield, MA affiliate) took that option. WPGH in Pittsburgh and WTCG in Atlanta didn't pick up the Saturday package, leaving their markets without Saturday coverage. WPGH and WTCG also showed the Monday games on tape delay at midnight and 11:30 p.m. ET, respectively. Meanwhile, by 1978, WUAB in Cleveland and WBFF in Baltimore dropped hockey coverage completely (Cleveland lost its NHL team, the Cleveland Barons, that year after just three seasons in that city, which may have led WUAB to drop the package).
Also in Buffalo, the Saturday afternoon games during the months of January and February were on WGR. Meanwhile, the Saturday games during the month of March were on WUTV. WUTV carried the Monday Night Hockey package, while WGR was the over-the-air station for the Buffalo Sabres. In New York, WOR did not carry Saturday games in the months of January or February. Meanwhile, WNEW (also in New York) carried the March Saturday games (at 2 p.m.). In both Buffalo and New York, college basketball and World Championship Tennis knocked the NHL off its usual Monday night carrier.
In 1977–78, KBJR in Duluth picked up the Saturday afternoon package and dropped the Monday night games. In that same season, WHMB in Indianapolis joined the network with Saturday afternoon games at 2 p.m. and Monday night games at 11 p.m. In addition, the Iowa PBS stations had dropped the NHL by this point.
The 1976 Stanley Cup Finals on the NHL Network marked the first time that the NHL's championship series was nationally televised in its entirety in the United States. Starting in the 1978 playoffs, the NHL Network began simulcasting many games with Hockey Night in Canada. In these games, Dan Kelly, who was the NHL Network's primary play-by-play broadcaster, was assigned to do play-by-play along with HNIC color commentators. This for example, happened in Game 7 of the quarterfinal series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders (April 29), where Kelly teamed up with Brian McFarlane. The entire 1979 Stanley Cup Finals between the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers was simulcast as well. However, had that final gone to Game 7, then that game would have been broadcast on ABC.
In most U.S. NHL cities, the Hughes NHL affiliate was the same one that aired the local team's games. About a couple of dozen other stations carried the games. The network had 47 stations for the 1976–77 season.
|Buffalo||WUTV (Monday night games)|
WGR/WUTV (Saturday afternoon games)
|Cleveland||WUAB (tape delay)|
|Dallas||KXTX (tape delay to 10:00 p.m. CT)|
|Houston||KRIV (tape delay to 11:30 p.m. CT)|
|Los Angeles||KHJ (tape delay to 8:00 p.m. PT)|
|New York City||WOR|
|Omaha||KETV (tape delay to 11:30 p.m. CT)|
|Seattle||KSTW (tape delay to 10:30 p.m. PT)|
|Washington, D.C.||WDCA (tape delay to 9:00 p.m. ET)|
By the time that NBC’s contract with the NHL ended after the 1974–75, they were getting a 3.8 rating. Meanwhile, the ratings for the NHL Network in its first month of existence were a 3.1 in New York, 1.9 in Los Angeles, and a 1.3 in Chicago. By 1978–79, the Monday night games were seen by about 1 million viewers; 300,000 of which were in the Boston area. Also in 1978–79, the 2 p.m. ET version of the Saturday broadcasts (with the first period cut out) was picked up by all participating affiliates except WSBK-TV Boston (which carried the entire game), and often, the cities whose local teams were playing if the local station aired the NHL Network version of a game instead of a locally produced broadcast.
For Game 4 of the 1976 quarterfinal playoff series between the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Black Hawks (April 16), Marv Albert and Brad Palmer called the game. Albert handled play-by-play for the first and third period while Palmer, the Black Hawks' TV host, handled play-by-play for the second period. They in the process, acted as analysts for each other. Played at Chicago Stadium, the game was blacked out in the Chicago area.
Meanwhile, Marv Albert also during the 1976 playoffs, teamed with Tim Ryan (who split play-by-play duties with Albert) and George Michael for Game 1 of the New York Islanders-Buffalo Sabres series (April 11) and Terry Crisp for Game 7 of the Toronto Maple Leafs-Philadelphia Flyers series (April 25). Terry Crisp also worked alongside play-by-play men Gene Hart and Don Earle on Game 4 of the aforementioned Toronto-Philadelphia series (April 17).
The analysts for the 1976 Stanley Cup Finals were active players and each game featured a different analyst alongside Marv Albert. These players were Stan Mikita, Garry Unger, Chico Resch and Curt Bennett. This format continued in 1977 with Stan Mikita, Garry Unger, Chico Resch, Don Awrey replacing Curt Bennett, who instead worked with Marv Albert and Dan Kelly on Game 4 of the Philadelphia Flyers-Boston Bruins playoff series (May 1).