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ESPN Touts New Female NHL Commentator, But There's One Major Problem: Many Fans Can't Stand Her

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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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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Grant is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He has five years of writing experience with various outlets and enjoys covering politics and sports.
Grant is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a bachelor's degree in journalism. He has five years of writing experience with various outlets and enjoys covering politics and sports.




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