Gary Bettman and Versus: Why America Does Not Follow the NHL

Andy Bensch@@AndyBenschSenior Writer IMarch 24, 2009

It is getting harder and harder for hockey fans to remember the days when the NHL was on the glorified sports network called the Entertainment Sports Programming Network, or its more common name, ESPN.

Now, being only 17, it is difficult for me to remember the days of Bill Clement and Gary Thorne calling NHL games. I still have a faint memory of watching the Stanley-Cup playoffs on ESPN.

Some highlights of games on ESPN and/or ABC can be found pre-lockout. Here are a few YouTube clips of the good ole days of hockey being broadcast on a predominant American television network. (Gary Thorne's voice and ESPN music intro, CLASSIC!!!) Remember "National Hockey Night" on ESPN? Those were the days.

Also, a couple videos of ESPN and ABC coverage of Blues v Sharks 2003-04 season playoffs, quarterfinals. (Niko Dimitrakos OT winner on ESPN) (Kyle McLaren with a hip check during ABC's coverage of the playoffs)

However, as great as that trip down memory lane was, currently the NHL makes its primary television residence on the Versus network. Versus was formerly OLN, which stood for Outdoor Life Network. Although the vast majority of NHL players grew up playing hockey outdoors, hockey is not an outdoor sport (granted there is one game a year in the past couple seasons, deemed the "winter classic," which is played outside).

The point to be made is that other than hockey, OLN primarily covered hunting and fishing and real outdoor activities. Now, was that the best place to put hockey? No, it wasn't.

This piece may seem a bit outdated to some, as the NHL has been on OLN/Versus ever since they returned from the lockout to play the 2005-06 season. The complaints made in this article have may have been heard many times before.

However, I felt it was necessary to demonstrate once again why NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is so off-base. The NHL is currently talked about as much on prime-time sports programs as is the AFL (Arena Football League). The AFL is currently on hiatus, but before it suffered from financial difficulty, had its games featured on ESPN 2.

Let's get this straight: a declining, barely functional football league was featured on ESPN 2, while the NHL is on versus?

For those of you who don't know, on basic cable, ESPN is channel 38, and ESPN 2 is channel 39. Versus, on the other hand, is on channel 81.

81? Really? 81? Yes, eighty-one. In fact, the Versus channel lies right between a country music channel and the golf channel.

To put that in perspective, take in the viewpoint from me, your basic American teenager who is a sports enthusiast. I never go by channel 81 when surfing my television. Unless my team is playing on the Versus station, I hardly ever remember to check channel 81 to see if there is an NHL game to watch.

The average teenager/young-adult surfs the television by going through Fox (channel 2), NBC (3) , CBS (5), FX (36), TNT (37), ESPN (38), espn2 (39), CSN/FSN (40), TBS (41), USA (42), MTV (43), VH1 (44), Comedy Central (63), E (64).

First off, unless someone really thinks about it, there is no reason to go past channel 63/64. Nobody stumbles upon the Versus network by accident.

Secondly, Versus only broadcasts NHL regular season games on Monday and Tuesday nights! Why can't they give us some prime-time weekend games? ESPN has Sunday night baseball, can't there be Saturday night hockey?

Now, growing up, even though my favorite team was the Sharks, if I stumbled upon a random NHL game on ESPN I would watch, especially because the match-up was usually between two playoff bound teams.

But ever since the NHL came back from the lock-out, I haven't been able to enjoy flipping on the TV during an off-day for the Sharks and watching a game between two eastern conference teams.  

It is just difficult to remind oneself to think about flipping to the versus station. It's just not natural.

Now back to Gary Bettman: if the AFL was on ESPN 2, surly the NHL could get on ESPN 2 and probably even back on the main ESPN station. Why then, is the NHL still on a channel the casual hockey fan can't find?

As much as I may complain about Versus not being a primary channel, it doesn't affect me nearly as much as it does the casual fan. The casual sports fan would be interested in watching a hockey game if they were flipping through the channels and found it. However very few people "flip through" channel 81.

Hockey is my favorite sport and I've practically grown up with the Sharks; we were both born in 1991 and of all my favorite teams, the Sharks are easily number one.

Therefore, it saddens me when my favorite sport receives little to no coverage on my favorite sports talk show, "Pardon the Interruption," with hosts Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser on ESPN.

Currently, the only thing the show is talking about right-now is March madness, and not being much of a basketball fan, I haven't been watching the show daily, as I usually do during any other month of the year. But perhaps if the NHL aired their games on the same channel as PTI, then maybe, just maybe the ESPN talk shows would give the NHL a little more coverage.

Of course basketball, football, and baseball will still be the sports primarily talked about, but a few more stories on the NHL, preferably outside of Alexander Ovechkin, (as from ESPN's NHL coverage, Ovechkin is the only player in the NHL) would be appreciated.

I mean c'mon ESPN, just throw out Erin Andrews at a hockey game and I'm sure people will tune in. She was at the Shark tank once, albeit wearing a red blouse when the Sharks were playing the Flames in the playoffs, but still, she was there. (If you don't know her, just google her.)

Lastly, the main spark of this article was the fact that I was unable to watch today's big game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Calgary Flames.

This game was a huge contest between two of the top teams in the west, one of which (Detroit) had just been past by the Sharks for the top spot in the league. Why Versus didn't add this game to their lineup is beyond me. Numerous fans of other teams would have been interested in tuning in to this match-up.

Finally, the Versus announcers are absolutely atrocious. A return to ESPN would be fantastic as Gary Thorne (who still covers the Frozen four for ESPN) would return, and therefore the casual hockey fan would return; only helping what is, in my opinion, the best sport in the world.


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