Leah Hextall, with longstanding family ties to UND hockey, to call regional games for ESPN

·3 min read

Mar. 25—Leah Hextall has been doing her homework this week in preparation to call the NCAA men's hockey regional in Fargo's Scheels Arena.

But the ESPN play-by-play announcer, who is based in Winnipeg, has a pretty good background into one of the teams there.

Hextall's uncle, Dennis, starred at UND for two years and became the program's first NHL player in 1968. More than 100 have since followed. Her second cousin, Brett, played three years at UND, helping the program reach the NCAA Frozen Four in 2011.

"They can't say enough about their time at UND," said Hextall, who toured Ralph Engelstad Arena when Brett was playing at UND. "I think it set them both up for a lot of success in their lives, not only on the ice but off of it. I'm happy to go to Fargo to do their regional. Every time I drive past UND, I look and go, 'Wow, what an opportunity.'"

Hextall arrived Wednesday in Fargo, which is where Brett, a Philadelphia Flyers scout, now lives. She will call the games with analyst Dave Starman for ESPN.

Minnesota Duluth will play Michigan at 3 p.m. Friday on ESPNU, while UND will take on American International at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN3, an online streaming channel. Saturday's regional championship is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

Hextall, who usually covers the Winnipeg Jets and freelances for Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada, made history in 2019, becoming the first woman to call TV play-by-play for an NCAA Division-I men's hockey tournament game. She called the regional in Providence, R.I., that year, which the hometown Providence Friars won.

Last season, she was supposed to call the Albany, N.Y., regional, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. This season, she was assigned to Fargo, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Winnipeg.

Hextall's family members aren't her only connections to UND.

When she broke into the TV business, she covered the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose in Winnipeg. UND head coach Brad Berry was an assistant with the Moose.

"It's been wonderful to re-connect with him after all this time," said Hextall, who interviewed Berry earlier this week.

One of the players on that Moose team was Mike Keane, whose son, Jackson, is a senior with the Fighting Hawks.

"I've known Jackson since he was little," Hextall said. "So, I've always paid attention to those Manitoba connections."

Hextall won't be the only one in the booth with longstanding connections to Fargo Regional teams.

Starman coached American International head coach Eric Lang when Lang played for the New York Junior B Islanders in the early-to-mid 1990s.

"He was fearless, tenacious, skilled," Starman said. "He did whatever you asked and did it well."

Starman has called both UND and Minnesota Duluth games this season for both Midco Sports Network and CBS Sports. He also called several Michigan players' games while they were at the World Junior Championship in December and January.

While Hextall usually works games in Canada, she enjoys calling NCAA men's hockey regional games.

"It's always one of the highlights of my year," Hextall said. "It's a lot of fun."

Hextall said she hasn't called a game in more than a year. The last one was March 8, 2020, between the Vegas Golden Knights and Calgary Flames in Calgary. That was less than a week before the NHL shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"I'm really looking forward to this," Hextall said. "Hopefully, the rust shakes off after the first couple shifts."

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