Leah Hextall is part of NHL royalty. Her grandfather Dennis Hextall is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and her uncles and cousin were standout NHL players as well. As a hockey broadcaster she worked her way up to studio host before deciding she would do “the hardest thing” in announcing — play-by-play calls. Knowing she lacked experience, ESPN hired her in order to, as she puts it, “earn the experience.” She started out calling NCAA games and then, last season, made history as the NHL’s first female play-by-play voice, calling games for ESPN+ and two playoff games on ESPN.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
In a 27-minute talk given earlier this summer at a hockey coaching conference in Michigan, Hextall shared some of the thousands of social media posts directed at her by enraged viewers during her first NHL season. Even after turning off her social media feed, Hextall continued to receive abusive emails from fans, and in her talk she read out an especially disturbing one that threatened her with rape and murder.
Perhaps just as bad, Hextall says she was “attacked” by peers in the industry. She overheard colleagues in the press box saying she had no business being there. On the other hand, legendary announcer Mike “Doc” Emrick mentored Hextall and was one of her biggest supporters.
“I have been covering this sport for nearly 20 years,” Hextall said. “I should feel comfortable when I walk into a rink and this season there were many times when I did not.”
Hextall’s talk, posted this week by The Coaches Site, was recorded in June, just as the NHL and Hockey Canada were settling a lawsuit filed by a woman alleging she was sexually assaulted by eight members of the 2017-18 National Junior Hockey Team.
Female play-by-play announcers remain a rarity in sports, a business that offers more opportunities and revenue to women than ever before. Fans aren't the only ones resistant to women in the broadcast booth; as trailblazing NBA play caller Pam Ward told The Ringer in 2018, “There are people who make decisions and bosses who also feel that way.” Women are shouldered with unreasonable expectations that male announcers aren't, even though many men also are hired with little play-by-play experience. This is, in Ward’s words, “a gap in standards and expectations that needs to close.”
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.