After being reported a couple weeks ago, it was made official today.  Top level hockey is returning to ESPN.  Bristol announced a deal with the NHL and NHLPA today to televise the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

The tournament will feature a unique lineup of eight teams: the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, a team of North American young stars, and Team Europe.  It will take place in Toronto in September 2016 and ESPN has said that it will air a minimum of 16 games on ESPN and ESPN2 including a potential Best of 3 final series.  Games will also be available on WatchESPN and ESPN Audio.

Here’s some quotes from the particulars involved:

“We are thrilled to resume our partnership with Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League and to work closely with Gary and Don Fehr of the National Hockey League Players’ Association to make the World Cup of Hockey on ESPN a reality,” said John Skipper, ESPN President. “We look forward to presenting this compelling tournament, with national pride at stake, to fans both in the United States and internationally.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman added, “ESPN broadcast the prior World Cup of Hockey, from Air Canada Centre. Now the World Cup is returning, with ESPN broadcasting in the U.S. We are very pleased and hope our fans will be, as well.”

“We are excited to have ESPN as our broadcast partner for what is going to be an incredible tournament featuring over 150 of the top hockey players in the world,” said Don Fehr, NHLPA Executive Director. “ESPN’s reach and storytelling approach will expose our players’ skill and personalities, something that we know will resonate with fans as the tournament unfolds.”

This is a ground-breaking agreement for a couple reasons.  First, its presence on ESPN immediately makes the new and improved Hockey World Cup a major, legitimate, international event.  To put it bluntly, ESPN wouldn’t be getting back into hockey and investing significant airtime (during the beginning of the football season and the end of the baseball season no less) and resources into televising this event if the network didn’t believe it could be a big success.  Second, it marks the first rights deal between the ESPN and NHL since the league and the network went their separate ways after the 2004 season.

It’s no secret that the relationship between ESPN and hockey fans has been icy for the last decade.  Could this agreement be a potential precursor to something more with ESPN and the NHL?  As we’ve written previously, ESPN’s interest in the Hockey World Cup doesn’t mean a sudden revival in their interest in the NHL.  (See Example A here.)  After losing soccer’s World Cup to Fox and the World Baseball Classic to MLB Network, this deal represents an opportunity to televise a major international sporting event once again.  Besides, the NHL’s contract with NBC runs through the 2020-2021 season so it’s not like the NHL is going anywhere anytime soon.

Nevertheless, the Hockey World Cup can at least be the beginning of building a bridge with hockey fans once again and ensuring the sport has a presence on ESPN airwaves beyond Barry Melrose’s mullet.

Most importantly, let’s hope it means the return of one of the best themes in sports.