John Buccigross gets some chicken parm in the booth in Columbus as Cassie Campbell looks on.

While ESPN didn’t have NHL rights from after the 2003-04 season until this current season, there were still plenty of prominent people at the company who loved and were passionate about hockey. John Buccigross is one of those figures: he started with ESPN in 1996 and hosted NHL Tonight from then through 2004, but kept boosting hockey even after ESPN no longer had NHL rights. In addition to covering the sport on SportsCenter during that time, he did play-by-play for other hockey events on ESPN, from the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 to the annual NCAA Frozen Four, and he wrote regular NHL columns for their digital site from 2001-17. But with ESPN now a NHL rightsholder again beginning with this season, Buccigross has been calling games for the network as well as appearing on their studio show The Point. He spoke to AA recently, and said the NHL’s return to the network has been an amazing experience for him.

“It’s been absolutely fantastic. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me in my career, being at ESPN over 25 years. To kind of get reenergized, reinvigorated with your job after being in the same place for 25 years, that’s probably pretty rare. I’m just grateful that I was able to get reenergized without leaving the company that I’ve worked for for so long. At this stage of my career, it was just perfect timing.”

Buccigross said he’s long had a passion for hockey, and he’s thrilled to get to cover it as part of a rightsholder network again.

“I’ve always loved hockey, I grew up with the game, and to be able to cover it now, to be a rightsholder is just pretty cool. There’s nothing like being a rightsholder, especially when you’re around a sport that you love. …And as we’ve gone through this first year as a rightsholder, going to different arenas, we’re always welcomed with open arms and a red carpet. It’s really warm and comforting, and really cool. There’s a honeymoon period of sorts, which anyone would appreciate. And after 25 years, it’s great to have that kind of reception from people, not being the tired guy who’s been there forever but somehow a new face again.”

But he said the years without NHL rights on ESPN actually worked out okay for him, as it let him focus on other responsibilities at the company and also gain some play-by-play experience on other hockey events, putting him in position to call NHL games now.

“It’s probably a good thing that it went away back in 2004, because I was able to focus on SportsCenter and kind of move up the ladder there, and maybe I never would have if hockey had stayed all these years. Maybe that was good. And then I got involved with college hockey, I asked to do play-by-play a couple of years after we lost the NHL, so I’ve been doing college hockey for over 15 years with play-by-play, hoping we would get the NHL back and then I could do NHL play-by-play.”

Buccigross has long been known for his discussion of hockey on Twitter, too, particularly with the #bucciovertimechallenge (picking a player from each team at the start of overtime and seeing if they score) and #cawlidgehawkey hashtags. He said some of that came from wanting to stay involved with hockey while ESPN didn’t have rights, and it’s actually helped him connect with some of today’s players.

“With the advent of social media, to stay kind of relevant and create these things like the #bucciovertimechallenge and #cawlidgehawkey, that’s interesting in that all the young NHL players kind of grew up with me on social media. So in some ways, I might have been more impactful with the current NHL players because we didn’t have hockey than if we had had hockey. Because they grew up more on social media and those things probably had a bigger impact than traditional linear TV on them.”

He said that wasn’t the plan for his social media use, but he’s happy it’s worked out that way.

“Social media, really, I’m the producer, director, everything, it’s my production, so to speak, and I was able to create a whole new hockey entity, a whole new brand. I just did it for fun, I don’t know how to create a brand or anything. It is kind of interesting how it worked out that way; now we’re a rightsholder, I’m back on [NHL] television, and all these kids, Auston Matthews and all these young stars who grew up with me on social media, I already have kind of a relationship and a little bit of street cred with them. I’m not just a faceless rookie coming back in there.”

Buccigross said ESPN colleague Sage Steele first suggested Twitter to him, but he was skeptical of the idea at first because he didn’t really understand the service.

“I remember Sage Steele saying ‘You should get on Twitter, you’d be pretty good at that.’ And I remember walking around and seeing people on Twitter and being like ‘Are you talking to your friends? Why don’t you just text them?’ I had no concept of what Twitter was back then. But then I started to get on and then I kind of realized what it was.”

He said Twitter’s short-form discussion of real-time events wound up being a great fit for him, though.

“I’m kind of quirky and observational, so it kind of fit me a little bit. And I am kind of a people pleaser, and I want people to have a good time and have fun. I throw something on there, see if it works, and if it doesn’t, I’ll back off.”

Buccigross said his idea for the #bucciovertimechallenge (which also comes with merch and charitable donations, with $250,000 donated to charity so far) came because of an off-camera activity at NHL Tonight, long before Twitter.

“We used to play the #bucciovertimechallenge type of thing when we had hockey the first time. We’d be waiting for the overtime game to end, and so to kill time, we’d each throw a dollar on the set, me, Barry Melrose, and Ray Ferraro. If one of our guys scored, we took the other people’s two bucks and did the show. If not, we put our dollars back in our pocket and did the show. It was just kind of a way to kill time late night at ESPN. And I just threw it on Twitter and retweeted people, and I couldn’t believe how quickly it took off. But it’s simple, it’s easy, and it helps enhance the viewing process of an overtime game.”

He said he thinks part of what’s helped that take off is how thrilling overtime hockey is in general.

“Overtime hockey might be the best television there is in sports. It’s commercial-free, and every shot’s a buzzer-beater attempt. Just think of every basketball shot in the air with one second left, that’s a shot in [overtime] hockey. It’s just a brilliant piece of television. And the overtime challenge accompanied it pretty well. It’s just a quirky thing out of nowhere that just kind of clicked.”

One further social media thing Buccigross has become known for lately is discussion of #chickenparm (his current Twitter name is even “Chicken Parm, Esq”). He both posts photos of his own chicken parm and rates others’ submissions. He said that also started with Ferraro on NHL Tonight.

“Going back to the Ray Ferraro days, I gave him the nickname of “Chicken Parm,” because he would mention that a lot of hockey players liked to have chicken parm in the afternoon. It’s a good little protein/carbohydrate meal. I don’t think I even had chicken parm growing up, because we never really went to nice restaurants; McDonald’s was fine dining for me. So I’m 32, 33 years old and I go ‘Huh, I really like this chicken parm. It’s always good, it’s tasty, it’s simple.'”

“So I just start tweeting pictures of my own, maybe a couple of pictures of myself making chicken parm for my kids. And people would show me theirs, and I’d go ‘That’s nice,’ and then I just started to rate it at one point. And then all of a sudden they’re flooding in, and it becomes this little fun thing; I roast some people’s chicken parm. It’s all about engagement on social media, and I think I have a little bit of a touch with how to engage people, do it in a nice way, a funny way, not a cruel way. It’s just a fun quirky little thing that kind of fits my personality, and it works on Twitter.”

And that’s now even led to arenas bringing him chicken parm in the booth.

“Multiple places I’ve gone this year, they surprise me with chicken parm in the booth at some point in the game. They did that in Seattle. And once another team sees that, they’re like ‘Oh, we’ve got to do that! We don’t want the Kraken to one-up us!’  So it’s happened in Carolina and Chicago and Buffalo now. And the rest of the cities need to get on the chicken parm wagon. It’s nice when teams copy other teams when I benefit with chicken parm. Broadcasting makes you hungry, let me tell you.”

As for how this season and postseason so far have played out, Buccigross said it’s cool to see higher-scoring games.

“Scoring was up this year across the NHL, which is very exciting. Obviously, scoring goals is fun, and with more goals, I’m sure television people like that, the league likes that, without compromising the game.”

He thinks the Tampa Bay Lightning are a particularly interesting story, with them trying to accomplish a three-peat championship not seen since the New York Islanders’ run of four straight from 1979-80 through 1982-83.

“You have a team trying to win three in a row, which hasn’t happened in the salary cap era, hasn’t been done since the early 80s and the real big advent of free agency. There’s a reason why no one has won three in a row since then; the landscape changed and the league expanded.”

And he’s thrilled overall with how ESPN and Turner are working together to broadcast the league, and he’s excited that he’s involved with it.

“We’re giving the sport a platform, us and Turner, with cross-promotion. It’s an exciting time for the NHL, and we certainly hope we can be a part of it.”

Buccigross will be on ESPN’s The Point at 3 p.m. Eastern Wednesday. Full details on ESPN’s NHL coverage this week can be found here.

[Photo from the Columbus Blue Jackets on Twitter]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.