We cover it early on in the interview, but it’s kinda crazy that John Buccigross and Barry Melrose have been working together for 15 years now. From Buccigross’ tenure on NHL2night from 1998-2004, to countless SportsCenter hits, to the semi-regular show they host for ESPN.com covering the coolest game on earth. Though Steve Levy and Linda Cohn may have an argument, they are the faces of hockey on America’s #1 sports network.
A signifier of that status is the annual Frozen Four, the championships of NCAA hockey. This is the second year that the two have called the tournament and championship game together, and Buccigross added select Big Ten games to his resume earlier in the season. For more on the production of that broadcast, check out our exclusive inside look from yesterday.
Approximately 90 minutes prior to their call of the title game, I spoke to Buccigross and Melrose from their booth at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. It’s a wide-ranging chat that covers a myriad of subjects. We talked about college hockey’s growth, Buccigross’ omnipresence on Twitter, and the NHL’s place on SportsCenter.
Steve Lepore: John, what initially got you into college hockey, specifically?
John Buccigross: Before I got to ESPN, I worked in Providence, Rhode Island. I got that job when I was 28 in late 1994. I was only there two years, but it was a great two years, I learned so much. The first X Games, Red Sox opening day, Patriots training camp and all the college sports.
Providence was the host city for the Frozen Four [in 1995]. It was the first time I was exposed to it. Just to see all the bands, inside it was electric, outside all the people wearing the hockey sweaters… it was like a hockey festival, which is pretty cool in this country. It just seemed like the most important thing in the world.
It made a huge impression on me. Ever since then, I’d always been a big fan of the sport.
SL: It’s your second time calling the Frozen Four, how cool is this for you?
JB: Yeah, this is the best. Really, it’s the best of both worlds, they’re in NHL arenas. You have that vibe, the Flyer banners, last year it was Pittsburgh, two great hockey cities. Full arenas, so much on the line, it couldn’t be any better than this.
SL: You guys have been working together for 16 years now. Are these broadcasts just like the two of you hanging out in Bristol?
Barry Melrose: The more you work with somebody, the better you get. I know John’s love for the sport, I know how hard John works to prepare for these things. The play-by-play guy does all the work, the color guy has the easiest job in the world, the color guy just talks about the game.
I know that John will be prepared, I know that if I mention a player that’s doing something, John will have something on them, and we don’t step on each other’s feet too much. My major goal is never to be talking when a goal goes in [laughs]. If I do all those things, we’ve got a great broadcast.
JB: Barry’s strength is that, whomever he’s working with, he makes it so natural. He elevates your game, that’s why he’s the best at what he does. When we’re doing this, it does feel like we’re at the bar watching the game, except he’s not swearing [laughing].
BM: Except I’d be picking up a tab.
JB: So whether we’re doing this, or SportsCenter highlights, or doing the games, it’s all the same. But he’s that way with everybody. I don’t know if we have great chemistry, but he has great chemistry with everybody.
SL: Barry, you’ve been doing this for a while even before John, how has doing college work affected your opinion on college vs. junior hockey, if at all?
BM: I don’t think it’s affected my opinion at all. I came up a junior guy, I coached in junior, so obviously that’s my background. But I coached enough college guys to know they were great players.
My team that won the Calder Cup in the AHL… Gary Shewchuk played at Wisconsin, so I gained a lot of respect for those guys. Tony Granato, there’s no tougher SOB in the world. Corey Millen played for Minnesota, played for me in LA.
Mike Connelly played at Michigan State, great hockey player. Jimmy Cummings, played at Wisconsin, one of the toughest guys I ever saw. I’ve always had a good opinion of college guys, and its gotten better and better.
Junior has too, but it’s just different. College guys are usually older, late bloomers a lot of times. Junior players are younger, they’re stars a lot of the time.
Junior players, for the most part, think they’re gonna play in the NHL, college players hope they’re gonna play in the NHL. I’ve always had a lot of esteem for college players.
SL: You’ve worked some Big Ten this year, what do you think the effect on the forming of the Big Ten has been on college hockey after this first year.
JB: I think it’s been great. The coaches we’ve talked to don’t like it, they like everything the same, but I thought the domino effect was gonna be great when I heard about it, and I think that’s what’s happened. So many things are gonna happen.
One of the things we were talking about the other day is Ohio State doesn’t have a real nice, intimate, on-campus rink. They play in that gigantic basketball barn. Once some people — alums and presidents — go to that arena, they’ll say “we have to have one.”
That’s going to cause a new arena boon. That’s going to be a real sleeping giant hockey program.
SL: Yeah, Penn State specifically…
JB: Again, the great brand name of Penn State. Right in the middle of Pennsylvania between the Penguins and the Flyers. Pennsylvania’s one of the most underrated hockey states there is right now.
My buddy’s an Ohio State football fan. He’s watching the Big Ten Network, saying “What’s on tonight? Ohio State-Michigan hockey game? I’ll watch that.” But if it was a CCHA game? He doesn’t know what the CCHA is, and he might not know particularly where the game was going to be telecast, he wouldn’t even probably go to that network.
But he’ll go to the Big Ten Network every so often because he’s an Ohio State football fan. I might tune into watch it, so I think it’s great from that standpoint. It’s great to have the Big Ten brand in college hockey, because people know the Big Ten who aren’t necessarily college hockey fans.
SL: Do you think down the line we might see more “brand name” schools — it’d take a lot to get more brand name conferences — but more brand name schools, you obviously need a Pegula-type to donate $100 million for the program…
JB: That’s the thing, these schools want someone to drop a giant check, because you also have to fund a women’s program because of Title IX. There’s a lot involved, but we talked with coaches who said Nebraska would be a slam dunk.
BM: And you’ve got UConn coming in with Hockey East. Quinnipiac and UConn will be there.
JB: But they’d love to have Illinois and Northwestern there with the Chicago market. With the Big Ten, they can get more teams — there’s 59 now — because of the Big Ten, Nebraska and Illinois and Northwestern might get in.
SL: How big do you think these broadcasts are for college hockey, and hockey in general?
JB: Yeah, if you’re a hockey fan you should watch this. There’s future NHL players, there’s drama, it’s a championship hockey game and you know what that means to people. For some people it’ll be the biggest game of their lives — of course the Minnesota kids all hope to win a Stanley Cup one day — but some people out here won’t have that chance.
They know it. They all want to play in the NHL and there’s this chance, but some have more doubt. But I think it’s great — whether it’s Hockey Night in Canada or CHL or Memorial Cup on NHL Network — when it’s a championship game.
SL: It’s the perfect weekend to do it, because most of the NHL games that weekend don’t matter.
JB: That’s true. These games look and sound bigger, because they are.
BM: It’s a great weekend for hockey. You’ve got the Frozen Four, of course, and the NHL season is winding down and everyone’s looking at the races. Everyone’s watching Pittsburgh and Philly today, and Sunday is the end of the season.
It’s a great time of the year, weather’s getting good, sun’s shining, it’s a perfect time if you’re a hockey fan.
SL: I am constantly amazed that no network that actually broadcasts hockey has tried to compete with the #bucciovertimechallenge. Are you amazed how much that and the #cawlidgehockey have resonated?
JB: It’s just so implausibly silly and unbelievable. You’re right, it’s amazing. It’s the perfect game for Twitter, it’s fun, it enhances your viewing pleasure because you want your guy to score, and if you’re a guy you like it because you want to prove you’re right [laughs].
It’s unbelievable. People are great, I saw some #cawlidgehockey shirts here and took some pictures. It’s going great, last year we raised $15,000 for hockey-related charities and this year I’m hoping to get 30 or 40.
It’s a lot of work, and it’s a little side business, but I’ve got all day. I don’t get to work until 5 o’clock…
SL: It’s just you and Scott Van Pelt eating chicken…
JB: Exactly [laughs]. It’s almost bucket of chicken night. Yeah, it’s been really cool. It’s another part of what’s great about the hockey community.
People ask “why do you love hockey?” Well, because the people who love it are fun. The sport’s fun and the people in it are all fun, and that’s another example of it.
SL: The NHL’s going to get a dream postseason, where do you think the coverage of hockey on ESPN and SportsCenter is right now?
BM: Obviously, I would love more, I’m a hockey guy, I think it’s the greatest sport in the world. I’ve been at ESPN a long time, and I understand it’s a business. But, you know, the thing is we have a lot of people who love hockey at ESPN.
People always say “everyone hates hockey at ESPN.” That’s not the case at all, we have a lot of guys that love hockey at ESPN and want it on more. We keep fighting, we’re behind the scenes, Bucci’s working his butt off.
Whenever we do a game, and we see a great play, we always say “That should be Highlight of the Night, Top 10.” I also understand the business of it, but what we’re gonna continue to push. Whenever I do a hit with Bucci or Steve, I’m gonna push hockey with everything I’ve got, and let everyone watching ESPN know it’s the greatest sport in the United States and Canada.
JB: Barry and I were talking about how this time of year, we crank it up for the playoffs. The hockey season is so long, the Stanley Cup Playoffs becomes like our NCAA Tournament. Two months is the perfect attention span to get people into it and watch the games.
There’s so much drama, so we do a lot. We’ve done a lot this year. When I’m on the air, I try to give them a reason, like this year we did a hit on the Beanpot final, because I was able to sell Johnny (Gaudreau) Hockey, like Johnny Football with the little hook there.
And people always ask “Why isn’t more college hockey on?” Well, if it got 1.5′s there’d be a lot of games on. We show what’s going to get ratings.
Our coverage is, I think, pretty strong. We have good communication with our producer, Tom DeCorte, who’s a great producer. Really open to everything — soccer, hockey — and try to make the broadcast like that.
SL: It feels like a more varied show lately.
JB: Yeah, and our producer’s a varied guy. He’s a huge EPL fan, he’s a hockey fan, and he loves the traditional — plays fantasy sports in all four major sports. Tom’s the ultimate sports fan and it’s good to have someone like that at the helm, because other people don’t think as wide. The show reflects that.