McDavid’s ESPY Snub Shows NHL Needs to Increase Exposure

There was some rolling of eyes on Saturday night when Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, not Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, won Best NHL Player at the 2021 ESPY Awards. The “star-studded event in celebration of this year’s greatest achievements in sports” was broadcast live from New York City on ABC and ESPN in the United States and on TSN in Canada. 

Nothing against Kane – the veteran winger might have been one of the 10 best players in the NHL in 2021. He had 15 goals and 51 assists in 56 games. That’s really good. It’s just not the greatest individual season in a generation.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

McDavid put up a preposterous 105 points in a shortened season. That’s 39 more than Kane, and the gap might have been 60 over a normal 82-game schedule. Even Kane called McDavid “head and shoulders the best player in the league”.

Awards are About Pop Culture

Now, this isn’t like McDavid was overlooked for hockey’s most revered honours, such as the Hart Memorial Trophy or Ted Lindsay Award (he, quite rightly, won both of those), and no one really gets too upset about being snubbed at the ESPYs. They’re trivial awards, essentially an excuse to gather a bunch of famous and beautiful people at an iconic spot for a splashy show and put it on in primetime. The ESPYs aren’t so much about sport as pop culture. But that’s the point.

Like many ESPY categories, Best NHL Player is determined by an online vote, open to anyone anywhere that can access ESPN’s website. It’s essentially a popularity contest. Or perhaps more accurately, considering hockey’s place outside the mainstream in many major American markets, a name recognition contest. And the greatest player on the planet lost that contest (as did fellow nominees Auston Matthews and Andrei Vasilevskiy).

Not the First Snub

This might not be so notable if it were an isolated event. But it comes just a couple of months after a promo announcing Turner’s NHL coverage that was shown on TNT mistakenly featured former Oilers captain Andrew Ference instead of McDavid.

A minor gaffe that is a major tell, considering any number of personnel at Turner who saw the promo before it went to air couldn’t distinguish McDavid from a second-tier defenceman who has been retired for five years. And this is coming from the league’s prized new partners.

ESPN and Turner Deals

The 2021-22 season marks the beginning of seven-year broadcast deals with ESPN and Turner to bring the NHL to audiences in the United States. The agreements will put the Stanley Cup Final on ABC and TNT four and three times, respectively.

Hopes are high that Disney-owned ESPN and Turner can greatly increase the NHL’s profile, helping the league make further inroads in the crowded American sports landscape. ESPN, after all, is “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” while Turner’s innovative coverage of the National Basketball Association (NBA) has been key to the league reaching its considerable heights.

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ESPN has already trotted out its NHL broadcast team, a considerable mix of well-known names, knowledgeable analysts, and insiders, with diverse perspectives and personalities. Turner has yet to announce its full roster, but has already landed the biggest fish in hockey’s pond, Wayne Gretzky, who will serve as the lead studio analyst.

“I think everyone has a responsibility who was a player in the National Hockey League to try to grow the game, and if I can be part of making Turner a positive venue for people to watch, I’m all for it.”

Wayne Gretzky’

That the average person doesn’t know McDavid, while they would recognize LeBron James, Tom Brady or any other of the faces of their respective sport, is indicative of how far the NHL still has to go to become truly mainstream. McDavid’s anonymity is more a symptom than a problem. Does McDavid becoming a household name bring more eyeballs to the NHL? Or is it that more eyes on the NHL help make McDavid a household name? Chicken meet egg.

Of course, it would be fun to see McDavid rubbing elbows with Rob Gronkowski and Nina Dobrev on the red carpet at Pier 17. But the only trophy anyone in Edmonton cares about McDavid winning is the one that is named for Lord Stanley.

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