For many years, the National Hockey League was prominently featured on the ESPN family of networks. Including during what was arguably the peak of the league's popularity.

But for several years now, NHL games have been absent for ESPN airwaves. Aside from things like the occasional highlight on other programs. Cases could be made that the separation has been detrimental for both sides. But that separation could be nearing its end.

The sides have reportedly reached a new deal

According to MSN and The Athletic, the NHL and ESPN have reached an agreement for a new broadcast deal.

It would apparently begin with the 2021-2022 NHL season.

Indications are that the deal would span at least seven seasons, with ESPN holding the broadcast rights for most of the Stanley Cup Finals during that timeframe.

ESPN was the primary cable broadcaster of the NHL in the United States for about 15 years. To go along with several other seasons of coverage. But the relationship between the two parties reached an end in the mid-2000s. And reports have insinuated that the parting wasn't necessarily on the best of terms.

In the time since references to the NHL have been rather noticeably absent on ESPN. Not just the lack of actual NHL games themselves. But the lack of coverage altogether. It might be understandable that there wouldn't be a specific regular tv show devoted to the league.

The ESPN family of networks has many of them devoted to various individual leagues. But it makes sense to not necessarily have one focused on a league they don't have broadcast rights to. But the major decrease in coverage on "SportsCenter" and other ESPN programs is more peculiar.

The hitch in the partnership was almost certainly detrimental to an extent to both sides.

But probably more so to the NHL. There have still been a wide array of sports leagues around the world for ESPN to cover. Bringing sizeable audiences with them. And while there are others, ESPN is still at the top of American sports networks. A virtual shutout from it would have some sting.

Another partnership with NBC could also still be in play

After ESPN, NBC and many of its slate of networks have played host to the NHL in the United States. NBCUniversal is also part-owner of the American NHL Network. It remains to be seen how a shuffle of broadcasting rights might affect that network. Teams also have their individual broadcasting agreements at local levels.

The new deal with ESPN is also supposed to include at least one other major broadcasting partner. Which could well be NBC, but their sports coverage set-up is somewhat in disarray. NBC has been preparing to move forward with a major and controversial shift in its sports broadcasting. Including the planned shutdown of the NBC Sports Network.