Since the lockout, the NHL and, more specifically, Gary Bettman have taken a lot of heat from fans about the arrangement with Versus. Many note that Versus does not reach as many screens as ESPN and the network has poor announcers.
Though the latter point is up for debate, the first is a fact: Versus is smaller than ESPN and if you are in a hotel room, you are more likely to see the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" on the lineup card.
But which network is better for the league?
Though ESPN has a larger viewership, there is no doubt that their pre-lockout hockey coverage was lacking. You could go as long as two weeks without actually being able to catch a hockey game. When ESPN actually aired a game, you would be lucky to get a pre- or post-game show, with additional add-ons like NHL Tonight being aired late and infrequently. ESPN would almost never cover non-playoff doubleheaders and usually would completely ignore small market teams in an effort to increase viewership. ESPN was also lacking on innovation for the game; at least Versus created "Inside the Glass."
All this being said, there is no doubt that ESPN has some advantages over the current Versus/NBC combo. The ESPN play-by-play announcers would always include talented men such as Bill Clement and Gary Thorne. The "Worldwide Leader in Sports" is also considered a must for pretty much any business with a TV, meaning you will never have trouble finding ESPN or ESPN2 at a local pub.
Versus is still a relatively new network and they will continue to grow. In 2006, the network was in about 65 million home; now it can be found in about 80 million.
Along with this nearly 19 percent growth, Versus has continued their efforts to improve and innovate. Recently, Comcast announced that it would use all of its networks, including the Golf Channel, NBC and Versus, to air all NHL playoff games in 2012, an unprecedented arrangement in sports that will allow all playoffs games to be viewed anywhere in the country without having to purchase NHL Center Ice. This type of dedication can't be matched by ESPN and ABC simply because of agreements with other sports.
ESPN is a great network, but it does not value the sport of hockey, and as a result, it will never match the quality in coverage which Versus offers.
Please note: Versus will soon be going through a name change to reflect the NBC partnership.