The Stanley Cup finals are being broadcasted with ASL play-by-play in a first. GETTY IMAGES

In a first-of-its-kind initiative, the National Hockey League (NHL) is broadcasting the Stanley Cup Finals in American Sign Language (ASL)  —becoming the first major sports league to offer play-by-play and analysis in ASL during a live broadcast when the Florida Panthers hosted the Edmonton Oilers in the series opener last week.

While closed captioning has been around since the 80s, the text does not provide true access to viewers in the Deaf community, whose first language is ASL. It can also be delayed, inaccurate, or misspelt, and physically block the play on the screen. Now, the community can enjoy the game feed that the main broadcast shows, with an audio meter underneath showing the real-time crowd noise to give ASL viewers the arena vibe while ESPN's broadcasters, Jason Altmann and Noah Blankenship, are calling real-time play-by-play and colour commentary entirely in sign language.

"It’s a proud moment for our sport and it’s a great example of what can be done to support all communities: authentically demonstrating that the Deaf community is an important fan base, a fan-in-waiting fan base, is the essence of what inclusion is all about," said Kim Davis, the NHL’s senior executive VP of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, according to the Associated Press. 

ASL broadcaster Altmann grew up watching sports with his father and grandfather, who are also deaf.

"I grew up watching sports with my dad and it was our way to bond,” Altmann said via FaceTime in ASL in an interview with The Associated Press a day after Game 2. “I remember watching ESPN with Chris Berman and Dan Patrick and saying, ‘I wish I could do that, but I am deaf and it would be difficult in this world.’ While this is a full-circle moment for me, I don’t view it as an opportunity for me. This is an opportunity for the Deaf community to be elevated and provided access."

"The Deaf community is so often pushed aside and the NHL ASL project is an opportunity to show how vibrant the community is with a rich history and language," he added. 

And, the job is difficult for Altmann, Blankenship and viewers. Hockey, especially at the NHL level with a championship at stake, does not provide many pauses in the frantic, end-to-end action for the commentators to share insights in ASL.

"The challenge is to find the right time to tell a short story or provide analysis as an added value to the viewers," Altmann said.

The initiative allows the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities to enjoy the "excitement and intricacies of the game on an equal footing," said Bobbie Beth Scoggins, the interim CEO of the National Association of the Deaf.

"The inclusion of American Sign Language coverage during NHL hockey games is a groundbreaking and historic moment for our Deaf communities,” Scoggins said. “This initiative marks a significant step towards inclusivity and equal access in sports broadcasting."