NHL Breaks Barriers with Real-Time Sign Language Commentary

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In the comfort of his home nearly 50 miles northwest of Detroit, Bob Madden’s eyes shifted from left to right, following each play of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final from a comfortable spot on his couch. His son, Jonathan, sat by his side, sharing the excitement, while their family dog, Ruby, lounged lazily at their feet.

Despite being deaf, Madden found himself experiencing unprecedented joy as he watched the game unfold—with commentary in American Sign Language (ASL) as a real-time adjunct, thought to be a major sports league first.

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“I think I’m starting to like this,” Madden, a spry 68-year-old, expressed Monday night. He added, “It’s something new for the deaf community. When I was a boy, we didn’t even have closed captioning.”

Indeed, closed captioning has been a part of broadcast programming since the 1980s, providing boxes of English text that some viewers might rely on. However, this doesn’t offer real access for members of the deaf community, for whom ASL is their primary language.

The NHL recently became the flagship league to offer real-time play-by-play effort and analytical assessments in ASL during a live game broadcast. The initiative kicked off with a Florida-hosted Edmonton match in the Cup Final opener last week, and ESPN+ and Sportsnet+ will continue this service for Game 3 Thursday night, as the Oilers seek to claw back from a 0-2 disadvantage in the best-of-seven series.

Kim Davis, the NHL’s senior executive VP of social impact, growth initiatives, and legislative affairs, expressed pride in the achievement. She acknowledged the deaf community as a crucial part of the sports’ fan base, emphasizing, “Authentically demonstrating that the deaf community…is the essence of what inclusion is all about.”

PXP, a company devoted to enhancing ASL access within sports, has partnered with the NHL to provide this unique service, represented by the company’s deaf Chief Operating Officer Jason Altmann and Noah Blankenship from Denver’s Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services. During live coverage, viewers see the pair on a split screen.

“This is an opportunity for the Deaf community to be elevated,” Altmann expressed in an ASL-translated FaceTime interview, adding, “I don’t view it as an opportunity for me.”

Altmann also acknowledged the challenge of interweaving commentary amongst the high-intensity, nearly non-stop action of NHL-level hockey, particularly with a championship on the line. “The challenge is to find the right time to tell a short story or provide analysis…,” he explained.

Madden, conversely, faced a unique challenge of assimilating the game as it played out on-screen alongside the ASL commentary, not to mention the additional distractions offered by player stats, game graphics, play-by-play, and the crowd intensity meter.

“This is the first time we have done this for the Deaf community,” Altmann professed, expressing the hope that this groundbreaking platform will establish a new normal for inclusivity and equal access in sports broadcasting.

Bobbie Beth Scoggins, the interim CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, touted the initiative as one that facilitates the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities to experience the “excitement and intricacies of the game on an equal footing.”

Clearly, this innovative step in sports broadcasting signifies a historic moment in expanding access and inclusion for Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities, putting spectator sports on an even playing field for everyone, regardless of their ability to hear.