A NHL/ESPN contract signing in 1998. 25 Aug 1998: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (C) with Roger Iger of ABC and Steve Bornstein of ESPN (R) during the ESPN/NHL contract signing in New York, New York. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello /Allsport

ESPN and hockey fans have come to a mutual understanding since the self-proclaimed worldwide leader stopped televising NHL games more than a decade ago – ESPN doesn’t need the NHL, and the NHL has realized it can get along just fine without ESPN.

In many ways, the NHL hasn’t just survived away from the ESPN machine, it has thrived.  Stanley Cup ratings have never been better.  More games are available than ever before.  And most importantly, the NHL can be the flagship sport of NBCSN instead of the second or third class citizen it would be in Bristol.

For ESPN, they’re content to roll Barry Melrose out for his regular appearances as their “hockey guy.”  The tribute to Melrose and Steve Levy covering the Stanley Cup Final for 20 years is striking because for the last half of that tenure, that’s pretty much been the extent of ESPN’s NHL coverage.  Sure, ESPN has plenty of hockey fans that work for the network (especially amongst their top SportsCenter anchors), but that doesn’t change the fact that the sport is still a nominal presence at best on Bristol airwaves.  ESPN lists 71 football analysts on their corporate website.  They list 1 hockey analyst.

As much as ESPNers try to downplay the notion that they downplay hockey because they don’t have the rights anymore, the facts of their coverage priorities speak for themselves.  That marginalization over time is why hockey fans still harbor feelings of bitterness towards Bristol after all these years.  ESPN executives have even infamously spoken out about their lack of interest in the NHL.  As recently retired exec Vince Doria said in 2012:

“It’s a sport that engenders a very passionate local following. If you’re a Blackhawks fan in Chicago, you’re a hardcore fan. But it doesn’t translate to television, and where it really doesn’t transfer much to is a national discussion, which is something that typifies what we do.”

“But if you go to our radio and television shows, there’s not a lot of hockey talk. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of yammer out there to give us hockey talk.”

All of that’s the long way around the boards of saying… it’s really difficult to fathom how and why ESPN is getting back into professional hockey by winning the rights to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey when they’ve been so indifferent towards the sport in the past.  Their most notable forays into the sport in recent years have been ESPN golden child Colin Cowherd insulting hockey writers as “young and cheap” and Stephen A. Smith not knowing there were no longer ties in hockey.  It’s not like there’s been a huge transformation as far as ESPN’s public appreciation for hockey goes unless you count some KHL games being made available on ESPN3.  Hockey returning to ESPN is about as likely as Keith Olbermann un-napalming the bridges he burned on the road to Bristol… although since that actually happened, I guess it’s true that anything is possible.

The return of big-time hockey to ESPN has been celebrated as beneficial for the sport.  And it is.  With Bristol’s resources behind it, the World Cup of Hockey will become a big deal.  The promotional machine of the ESPN monolith will allow nothing else.

But given where the ESPN-hockey relationship has been for the last decade, it’s difficult to envision this reported agreement as some kind of landmark moment or seismic shift.  Just because ESPN wins rights to this World Cup tournament doesn’t mean that Jackets-Penguins is going to be leading the 11 PM ET SportsCenter.

In fact, ESPN’s acquisition of the World Cup of Hockey might just be more about those first two words than that last one.

Look at what ESPN has done with the World Cup in soccer over the past decade.  They took an event that was the definition of “niche” and turned it into a cultural phenomenon.  In 2006, USA-Ghana drew 5.5 million viewers on ESPN.  In 2014 it drew 15.9 million.  The USMNT and the World Cup has become as big as any other professional or international sporting event in this country.  Why?  Not just because of the international competition featuring the best athletes around the world or soccer’s growth in America.  Because they finally found a way to take advantage of the drawing power of Team USA.  The World Cup just doesn’t matter anymore, our success in the World Cup matters.

Of course, ESPN no longer possesses rights to soccer’s World Cup.  With the advent of the hockey World Cup in 2016, why wouldn’t ESPN want to be involved in the newest major international competition, no matter what sport it was?  With the promise of hockey’s best taking part and the selling point of Team USA hoping to win the reboot of the tournament, the interest and viewership will already be built in.  You can bet ESPN was paying attention when T.J. Oshie’s shootout heroics against Russia in the Olympics drew huge ratings.  And for ESPN, a hockey World Cup promises to have a much higher floor than the World Baseball Classic.

And although hockey fans might not want to hear this truth, in one way Vince Doria is right.  Team USA Hockey has a much broader appeal than the Nashville Predators or the Tampa Bay Lightning.  That’s the well ESPN is tapping into here.  The World Cup’s success this summer didn’t translate into more MLS highlights on SportsCenter.  ESPN knew they had a cultural event in the World Cup and the travels of the USMNT.  They know they don’t have it in an April Rapids-Galaxy game.

Likewise, this deal won’t lead to the NHL suddenly becoming a consistent presence beyond the 3% of airtime it’s received in the past.  The efficiency and ruthlessness of ESPN’s evolving business model is to maximize revenue and completely saturate events that will draw.  That’s why you see wall-to-wall NFL coverage and why LeBron James’ Tweet of the Night is a regular feature.  That’s why National Signing Day has grown into a behemoth.  The network is hoping that the World Cup of Hockey will be enough of an event to cast that wide net and draw in the casual fan or the fan that loves cheering for the red, white, and blue.

ESPN winning the rights to the World Cup of Hockey isn’t necessarily a transformational shift in hockey’s place at ESPN.  It’s merely what ESPN does each and every day.  Business.

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