The cable TV giant regained a foothold with the NHL on Wednesday when it was awarded the U.S. rights to broadcast the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
The NHL and NHL Players' Association, who are overseeing the eight-team international tournament, jointly announced the decision. ESPN was selected ahead of NBC Sports Group, which is in the midst of a 10-year contract to broadcast NHL regular-season and playoff games through 2020-21.
"I tell you we are thrilled to be back with the NHL in the United States," ESPN president John Skipper said during a conference call. "I tell you the place is electric with excitement about getting back into hockey."
ESPN was the NHL's U.S. broadcaster from 1992 through the league's lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
Though ESPN continues to broadcast NHL stories and highlights, its coverage of hockey has been overshadowed by North America's three other major pro sports and the network's own outdoor X Games.
NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr welcomed ESPN's renewed interest in hockey.
"Given the footprint ESPN has, I think it goes without saying that this is a vote of confidence on their part," Fehr said.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said ESPN was selected after NBC executives said they could encounter scheduling conflicts to broadcast the tournament which will be held in Toronto, and run from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1.
"Despite suggestions and rumours to the contrary, we have continued to maintain an excellent relationship with NBC," Bettman said. "There were no points of friction or hard feelings."
Bettman noted that it's not unusual in other professional sports to have broadcasting partnerships with competing networks.
"We kind of view this as an opportunity to rekindle the 'SportsCenter' interest," Bettman said, referring to ESPN's key sports news program. "To the extent that people at "SportsCenter" are more focused on hockey in September, maybe that will continue on throughout the regular season."
Rogers Sportsnet and French-language TVA Sports were awarded the Canadian broadcasting rights.
The World Cup returns after last being played in 2004.
The 2016 tournament will feature teams representing the U.S., Canada, Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic and Finland. The two remaining teams will be made up of a mix of players, one consisting of North Americans 23 and younger, and the other made up of European-born players whose countries aren't represented.
Plans are already in the works to hold the World Cup once every four years, and to expand the number of teams involved.