ESPN continues to fill out its NHL broadcasting team for next season and beyond, with their latest hire there being Leah Hextall. Hextall has done some previous work for ESPN, including interviews at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and play-by-play at the NCAA men’s hockey championships (including this year; the above photo is from the five-overtime game she called between Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota in March, the longest game in NCAA men’s playoff hockey history). Last year, with Rogers Sportsnet, Hextall became the first woman to call a cross-Canada game in English last year on International Women’s Day, the same day where Kate Scott became the first woman to call a U.S. national game for NBCSN. (The previous all-female national game was a RDS French cross-Canada broadcast in 2008, called by Claudine Douville and Daniele Sauvageau.) Hextall’s other media work includes time with CTV Winnipeg, NESN, the CWHL, the Brandon Wheat Kings, and CJOB. Here’s more on this hire from Andrew Marchand of The New York Post:
For its NHL coverage, ESPN has signed Leah Hextall to do play-by-play and other roles, The Post has learned.
While the exact number of games she will broadcast is not yet known, she will be the first woman play-by-player to be a regular part of national NHL TV package.
Hextall has been broadcasting hockey for 17 years.
Here are some highlights from that Sportsnet all-women’s (on-air and behind the scenes) broadcast last year:
It’s certainly significant to see a women hired to do play-by-play on a national NHL package. Within the NHL, there have been many female analysts (including, in recent years, A.J. Mleczko and Kendal Coyne Schofeld on NBC/NBCSN and Cassie Campbell-Pascall on CBC and Sportsnet), but it’s been more rare to see women given a chance at a play-by-play role. There have been some cases of that on regional broadcasts, including Sherry Ross (regularly an analyst) switching to play-by-play for a New Jersey Devils’ radio broadcast in 2009, and we did see Scott get that chance nationally in the U.S. last year (and Hextall get that chance nationally in Canada), but it’s interesting to see Hextall’s NHL play-by-play opportunities expand from a one-off International Women’s Day feature to a more regular role. And Hextall certainly has a long history around the game, even beyond her 17 years of broadcasting hockey; her cousin Ron is the famed former Flyers’ goaltender and current Penguins’ GM, and her grandfather Bryan is in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player, particularly known for his time with the Rangers.
In terms of the wider sports context, it’s become much more common to see women handling play-by-play on national or regional broadcasts in recent years. A few of the many recent examples include Beth Mowins on college football, the NFL and MLB, Lisa Byington on Big Ten Network football, local NBA and WNBA broadcasts in Chicago, and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Jenny Cavnar and Melanie Newman in MLB, Meghan McPeak on a cross-Canada NBA broadcast, and Scott on Pac-12 Network football and a Warriors’ regional broadcast. So it seems likely that we’ll soon get to a point where women doing play-by-play for any sport is relatively common. But for now, this is still a pretty notable step in the hockey world, and it’s interesting to see ESPN making that move. We’ll see how many games Hextall winds up calling, what her “other roles” comprise, and how she does with ESPN.