If you’re like me, you watch hockey, and…basically no other sports. You also, like me, would like to skip the cable subscription. So what’s the cheapest way to watch NHL hockey online so you can cut the cord?
It depends. If you live outside the US or Canada, you can pretty much buy an NHL.tv account and watch everything for around $100 a year. Inside the US and Canada, however, broadcast rights make things complicated, meaning you’ll need to somehow get access to some combination of local, national, and out-of-market games.
Can you watch hockey without cable? Yes, but with all sorts of caveats. It depends which team you want to follow, where you live, and how many blackouts you’re willing to put up with. Here’s a quick cost breakdown for US residents:
- If you follow your local team (that is, the team based in the city where you live), you can watch every game of the regular season and playoffs for $25 a month using cable replacement Sling TV, though you may need to spend $5 extra the first month of the playoffs for CNBC. Awesome!
- If you follow an out-of-market team (that is, a team from a city other than where you live), you can watch most games of the regular season with a $130 annual NHL.tv account, and watch any nationally broadcast games with a $25 a month Sling TV account (again, you may need to spend $5 extra in the first month of the playoffs for CNBC access.) Also, because of the freaking NHL Network, out-of-market fans may need to spend $10 a month extra on Sling TV to watch every game of the regular season. You’ll have to decide whether that’s worthwhile to you, because it’s somewhat rare depending on which team you follow.
RELATED: What Is Sling TV, and Can It Replace Your Cable Subscription?
Confused yet? Read on as we break it all down for you, or skip to the very last section for the cheapest (and most complicated) option.
Watch Regionally Broadcast NHL Games in the USA with Sling TV
During the regular season, the vast majority of NHL games involving US teams are broadcast on Regional Sports Networks (RSNs). If you’re a fan of a team that’s local to where you live, you need access to your local sports channel. You can’t stream them on NHL.tv, because they are “blacked out”—those regional sports networks are given full rights to broadcast the game in an attempt to get you to pay for cable.
The two biggest RSNs are Fox Sports and Comcast/NBC Sports. If the word “Fox Sports” is in the name, or the NBC logo is used, your local sports channel is one of these. Mile High Hockey offers a great map of which channels cover which teams, if you’re not sure; it was made in 2013 but it’s still more-or-less accurate, give or take the Vegas Golden Knights.
So, which streaming services offer these regional networks? Here’s what we found:
- Sling TV charges $25 a month for their Sling Blue package, which offers the Fox and NBC RSNs.
Update: Sling has now dropped FOX Regional Sports Networks because the owners “have made unreasonable demands.”
- YouTube TV costs $35 a month, and offers the Fox Sports and NBC RSNs.
- Hulu TV costs $40 a month, and offers the Fox Sports and NBC RSNs.
- Playstation Vue charges $45 a month for their Core plan which offers the NBC RSNS, and $55 for their Elite plan, which offers the Fox Sports RSNs. Yep: the two networks are in different tiers.
- DirecTV Now charges $50 a month for their Just Right package, which includes Fox Sports and NBC RSNs.
As you can see, Sling’s Blue package is the cheapest way to get access to these regional sports broadcasts: $25 and you’ve got either the Comcast/NBC or Fox regional network.
If your local sports channel isn’t from Fox or Comcast/NBC, you’re basically out of luck from what we can tell. In Colorado, for example, the rights to the Avalanche belong to Altitude, a independent channel, and none of these services provide access to that channel. Coverage varies from service to service, so check out all of the services and see if your local sports network is offered. If not, sorry: you’re going to need cable to watch local games (or a VPN—which we’ll talk about in a bit).
Watch Out-of-Market NHL Games in the USA with NHL.tv
I don’t live in my old hometown anymore, but I still cheer for that NHL team. If you want to watch a team located elsewhere in the country, or in Canada for that matter, no regional sports network can give you access to most of the games you want to watch. For fans like us, there’s NHL.tv, the streaming service offered by the league itself. For $140 a year, you can watch every out-of-market game—this works out to around $17.50 a month for the eight months of the regular season.
An “out-of-market” game is any game that you couldn’t watch on cable even if you wanted to, because it’s not on nationally and no regional network local to you is airing it. Again, Mile High Sports has a pretty good map of the blackout areas if you’re interested.
NHL.tv is a particularly good deal if you are a fan of a Canadian team, or a small market American team that NBC generally ignores. Games involving these teams are rarely broadcast nationally in the United States, so fans can more or less watch every game of the regular season, free from blackouts. The only exceptions are when your team plays the team local to where you live, or NHL Network decides to ruin your day (more on them later.)
On the flip side, NHL.tv is a pretty bad deal if you’re a fan of a big-market American team. Over 25 Chicago Blackhawks games are broadcast nationally every year, meaning you won’t be able to watch those games on NHL.tv; you need access to national broadcasts in order to watch them. Check your team’s schedule and see how many games are broadcast nationally before buying this service: if you aren’t the kind of fan who needs to watch every game, maybe the national broadcasts will be enough for you.
Watch Nationally Broadcast NHL Games Online in the USA with Sling TV
NBC has the national broadcast rights to NHL games in the USA, and most of the games they broadcast nationally are on NBCSN, their cable-only sports channel. A few games are broadcast on NBC’s broadcast network, but typically no more than once a week starting halfway through the season. During the regular season, access to NBC and NBCSN will let you watch every nationally broadcast game in the USA.
Every playoff game is broadcast nationally, and in the first round that means a few overlapping games are bumped to two other NBC-owned channels: USA and CNBC. If you are fine with just watching whatever is on NBCSN most nights, you don’t need these channels—but if you follow a team that’s not a major US market, there’s a good chance your team’s game will be “bumped” to one of those stations in the first and possibly second round.
Still following? Here’s a list of services that offer these channels, along with the price for the cheapest package that offers them.
- Sling TV, charges $25 a month for the “Blue” package, which includes NBC, NBCSN, and USA. CNBC is part of the $5/month “News Extra” add-on, which you could potentially add just for the first round of the playoffs, if that happens to be where NBC crams your team.
- Playstation Vue, which works great for Playstation owners, charges $30 a month for the “Access Slim” package, which includes all relevant national NBC channels.
- YouTubeTV costs $35 a month, and includes all relevant NBC channels.
- DirecTV Now charges $35 a month for the “Live a Little” package, which includes all relevant national NBC channels.
- Hulu TV costs $40 a month, and includes all relevant national NBC channels.
Sling TV is your best bet at $25 a month if you’re okay with not having CNBC, which you really only need for the first month of the playoffs. Even then, it only costs $5, which brings the price in line with Playstation Vue.
The Freaking NHL Network: Ruining Everything For Out-Of-Market Fans
Strictly speaking, NBCSN isn’t the only national broadcaster of NHL games: there’s also NHL Network. This channel, mostly owned by the league itself, re-broadcasts otherwise local-only games most nights of the regular season. This doesn’t affect local audiences, since those games are still offered on the local RSN. NHL.tv users, however, are screwed by this: the games are blacked out on that service.
The NHL owns the NHL Network, so you would think games on that channel would be offered on their NHL.tv streaming service. Nope: the league hates you! Even worse: NHL Network is an expensive option, and most streaming services don’t even offer it.
- Sling TV offers the NHL Network as part of it’s $10 a month Sports Extra package, which you’ll have to pay on top of the $25 a month Blue package outlined earlier.
- DirecTV Now offers the NHL Network as part of its $60 a month “Go Big” package.
- Playstation Vue does not offer the NHL Network.
- YouTube TV does not offer the NHL Network.
- Hulu TV does not offer the NHL Network.
If you’re an out-of-market fan, and you really don’t want to miss any games broadcast on NHL Network, Sling’s Sports Extra package is the cheapest deal here. Get that, or deal with missing the occasional game, grumbling under your breath about Gary Bettman, who is surely behind this. Then scroll down to read about VPNs.
Watch Hockey in Canada With NHL GameCenter
The situation in Canada is simpler in some ways, and more complicated in others. National broadcast rights for hockey games is owned by Rogers, the telecommunications company that also owns the Sportsnet line of cable channels. Rogers broadcasts games nationally on their cable networks, and also uses CBC’s airtime on Saturday nights during the regular season and every night of the playoffs. This means a hockey fan with a TV antenna can watch Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts free of charge, as is tradition.
Rogers also runs NHL GameCenter, which is the Canadian version of what’s called NHL.tv in other countries. Here’s the good part: they’ve decided to not black out any national games. If you have a GameCenter account in Canada, you can watch every game broadcast nationally on Sportsnet or CBC. This is a much better deal than the American version, and it gets better: Rogers gives out NHL GameCenter to some customers, so there’s a chance you already have access to this service if Rogers is your ISP or mobile carrier.
If you don’t have free access, NHL GameCenter costs $170 CND if you buy before the season starts, or $200 if you buy during the season. A playoff-only pass costs $75, and you can watch every game of the playoffs with it.
However, while there are no national blackouts, there are still local blackouts. If a local game isn’t broadcast nationally, you won’t be able to watch it on GameCenter.
For example: TSN has the regional rights to Leafs games. If you live in Toronto, or any area of the Leafs’ local market, you cannot watch those games on NHL GameCenter. If you live outside the local market, however, you can watch those games, so Leafs fans in Montreal or Vancouver are covered.
That’s straightforward, but it gets weird. Rogers, in addition to owning the national broadcast rights, also owns the local rights to a number of teams, including the Edmonton Oilers. This means if you live in Edmonton, you cannot watch Oilers games being broadcast locally on Rogers Sportsnet West—you can only watch the nationally broadcast games. I don’t know why Rogers does this, but it’s the source of a lot of confusion for cord-cutting Canadians.
And it gets worse, because there’s not really any services like Sling or Hulu TV covering the Canadian market. If you want to watch your local team’s games, you either have to get cable, stick to only watching national broadcasts, or move.
Or you could scroll down to read about VPNs.
What If I’m Outside of Canada and the USA?
For the most part, if you live outside the USA or Canada, buying an NHL.tv subscription will give you access to every single NHL game, including the playoffs. Even better: the account costs less—typically around $100 a year, though this can vary depending on where you are.
Note that there may be some variation on this. In some countries there are cable channels with the right to re-broadcast NHL games, though strangely NHL.tv blackouts don’t necessarily apply in all of them. We couldn’t begin to untangle all of this, so I’d recommend contacting customer service and learning what is and isn’t blacked out where you are before committing to a subscription.
Avoid Every Blackout with a VPN and NHL.tv
At this point, you might be considering moving to Mexico just so you can watch hockey without blackouts. That’s perfectly reasonable, but before you start packing, let’s talk about VPNs.
RELATED: What Is a VPN, and Why Would I Need One?
A VPN connects you to the internet through another computer. Depending on where that other computer is, you might be able to work around blackouts altogether. If you access NHL.tv through a VPN in, say, The Netherlands—or any other country outside the US and Canada—there are no blackouts whatsoever. That means you can watch a game even if it’s broadcast locally or nationally where you live.
As an added benefit, people in the USA can access Canadian broadcasts of playoff games, allowing them to avoid hearing Mike Emrick, the single most annoying hockey announcer on the planet. That’s right: I went there. Deal with it.
Here’s how to choose the best VPN. We recommend ExpressVPN and TunnelBear for ease of use, though StrongVPN offers a lot of options if you have a rather complicated setup at home.
RELATED: Connect Your Home Router to a VPN to Bypass Censorship, Filtering, and More
Note that you’ll need to be running the VPN on the same machine through which you’re watching the game. If you’re watching on a computer, that’s easy—just run the VPN program on that computer, then connect to NHL.tv on the same computer. If you want to stream the game on your smart TV, Roku, or other non-computer device, you’ll probably have to connect to your VPN through your router intsead, which is a bit more complicated.
In this guide, we’ve tried to stick to legal ways to watch hockey without cable, which is why we didn’t outline where to find pirated streams (don’t look on Reddit, you won’t find anything.) Using a VPN to watch blacked out games is more of a grey area: it’s not illegal, but it does violate the terms of service for NHL.tv, so using one could hypothetically get you banned. In practice this hasn’t happened yet, but one never can tell what lawyers might get themselves up to.
You’ve been warned: don’t use awesome VPNs to bypass terrible blackouts. That would bring down the cost of watching hockey online considerably, which would be tragic. Right?
Photo Credits: Ryan Vaarsi, Alex Indigo