This season, ESPN acquired the rights to broadcast NHL games for the first time in 16 years. Despite initial excitement, many fans have been displeased with the product, and one play-by-play broadcaster in particular has drawn immense criticism.
The network announced its seven-year rights agreement with the NHL in March 2021, according to The New York Times. It came after the league’s decade-long agreement with NBCUniversal expired.
A couple of months later, ESPN hired broadcaster Leah Hextall to be a regular play-by-play broadcaster for its NHL broadcasts, the New York Post reported.
When the network began the first season of its pro hockey deal last fall, Hextall became a mainstay on its broadcasts.
There is little doubt ESPN’s intention in hiring Hextall was at least partly to virtue signal about breaking ground for female broadcasters. The hire made her the first woman to be a regular play-by-play voice for a national network, the Post reported.
ESPN made its agenda even more clear in January when it aired its first all-female NHL broadcast. Hextall joined co-workers Linda Cohn and Cassie Campbell-Pascall for the historic occasion.
“I understand what it means and the milestone, and for me who’s been in this business for over three decades, there’s an inner smile on my face even when I was serious during this broadcast of the game here on ESPN+,” Cohn said on “SportsCenter” the next day.
“Really when I sit back, when I reflect on it, yes I’m happy, and I hope to see more and more of these all-female casts, but it just seemed like nothing different than anything else.”
The obvious implication was that viewers were supposed to celebrate this historic achievement, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Having more women in sports media is a great thing — as long as those women are qualified for the position.
Does ESPN deserve criticism for hiring Hextall?
Yes: 92% (205 Votes)
No: 8% (17 Votes)
The problem is that Hextall has no business serving as the play-by-play voice for an NHL broadcast. In just one season with ESPN, she has racked up a full highlight reel (or should I say lowlight reel) of gaffes.
One of her most infamous moments came last month during a game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. Lighting forward Pat Maroon was arguing with Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds.
Hextall began pointing back and forth and laughing hysterically during the verbal spat, which many fans felt took away from the moment.
The Pat Maroon – Wayne Simmonds chirping has started early. 👀 pic.twitter.com/DQEyqrlUUd
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 22, 2022
Later in the game, Hextall spoke directly to Simmonds. She incorrectly said he had fought Maroon before, which he corrected. She proceeded to ask him if he was “soft” while employing some of her patented hand flailing.
Pat Maroon – Wayne Simmonds beef continues. 👀
Simmonds response to Maroon calling him soft:
“We’ve never dropped the gloves. He’s never obliged me before so I don’t think I’m the one that’s soft.” pic.twitter.com/cpiMS14iRM
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 22, 2022
Fans promptly criticized her for the interview and her apparent lack of preparation before the game.
“I will take a lot of heat for this but I am a big boy,” one said on Twitter. “Leah Hextall doesn’t even know they have not fought before. Asking Wayne [Simmonds] if he is soft might be one of the most ridiculous questions I have ever heard. Do your homework.”
I will take a lot of heat for this but I am a big boy. Leah Hextall doesn’t even know they have not fought before. Asking Wayne Simmons’s if he is soft might be one of the most ridiculous questions I have ever heard. Do your homework. @leahhextall #leafs https://t.co/zxsw26rRfQ
— Tim Peel (@TimCPeel20) April 22, 2022
During a broadcast in November 2021, Hextall repeatedly identified the player wearing the No. 8 jersey on the Chicago Blackhawks as Alex DeBrincat. However, the team’s roster confirms DeBrincat wears No. 12 while Dominik Kubalik wears No. 8.
Leah hextall killing it so far pic.twitter.com/VwVOLvL76u
— a-dawg (@AceTheKiddd) November 13, 2021
DeBrincat is a very well-known player, and Hextall should have been familiar with his number.
Sure, commentators make mistakes, and it’s not the end of the world. The issue comes when seemingly every broadcast Hextall is on is characterized by her gaffes.
In a March game between the Minnesota Wild and Detroit Red Wings, Hextall incorrectly said there would be a four-on-four despite Detroit clearly having five players on the ice.
“No, we’ve got five on four,” color analyst Dominic Moore corrected. “It’s a power play.”
@NHLonESPN3 @ESPNPR @espn Leah Hextall is also an incredible listener and adds a lot of insight to the broadcast. Glad Dominic Moore is there to also do the correct play-by-play commentating. pic.twitter.com/pktwyX3m30
— Coogan (@imdowntopuck) March 12, 2022
With more viewers tuning into games since the NHL playoffs began this month, it has become clear Moore is not the only one who is growing impatient with Hextall. Many Twitter users made their frustration known when Hextall called a game between the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.
I know you can’t criticize women in any capacity these days but Leah Hextall is the single worst broadcaster I’ve ever heard. ESPN is an absolute joke.
— Bryan Austin (@BryanAustin128) May 12, 2022
No overtime. Please, Lord. I don’t care who wins. Just no overtime.@espn, this is your fault. This broadcast with Leah Hextall is so bad that it needs to be reported to both the FCC and Amnesty International.
— nick burke (@NBurkeIA) May 11, 2022
At one point on Wednesday, “Leah Hextall” was even trending on Twitter, presumably because fans were tweeting their disapproval as she was calling a game between the Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames.
Apparently you’re not the only one pic.twitter.com/ZR9H6ndEcd
— Alex (@Hagggle) May 12, 2022
While some of the early criticism of Hextall was brushed off as “sexism,” many people are coming to realize the issue is not her gender but rather her job performance.
“As a woman, I can honestly say that criticizing Leah Hextall is NOT sexist,” one user wrote alongside a video from Tuesday’s game. “It just means you have functioning ears.”
As a woman, I can honestly say that criticizing Leah Hextall is NOT sexist. It just means you have functioning ears. pic.twitter.com/NKUzcE5Vp1
— Demure Shark (@thedemureshark) May 12, 2022
Another user said his problem is not gender-based because there are plenty of talented women who could call hockey games on ESPN. He just doesn’t think Hextall is one of them.
Out of all the talented women in hockey how does ESPN keep sticking us with Leah Hextall?
Shame on ESPN. Just another reason TNT has been the far superior network this season
— Keith (@KeithKavJr) May 12, 2022
Women getting jobs in sports media is a good thing, but they should get those jobs because they earn them. When people are hired based on their membership in “marginalized” groups, this is often the result.