How TV Has Helped Kill the NHL

Jeff PencekCorrespondent IIApril 30, 2009

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 28:  Cam Ward #30 of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates with teammates Eric Staal #12, Erik Cole #28 and Joe Corvo #77 after defeating the New Jersey Devils 4-3 in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Prudential Center on April 28, 2009 in Newark, New Jersey. Hurricanes defeat the Devils 4-3  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The lockout caused major damage, and casual fans with some interest in hockey saw they could easily live without it.

Overexpansion to Southern cities where potential fans could care less about hockey spread the product thin and harmed the atmosphere of the sport.

Newer arenas tore apart the atmosphere older hockey venues presented. No matter how great the amenities are in the new arenas, watching games in Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, Maple Leaf Gardens, the Aud, and the Forum was just more fun.

Hockey is the toughest sport to get across on television. The NHL has two network partners that aren’t talented enough to make hockey work.

ESPN helped bury hockey to where it is in the national landscape by not picking up the contract after the lockout, and by reducing news and coverage elsewhere along the networks.

The NHL had little choice but to accept offers from Versus and NBC to get some American exposure. Both networks are bad fits and frankly provide less than quality coverage of what should be a huge two-month stretch of sports in terms of presentation.

I’ll start with Versus. I’m sure some of their issues come from limited means; however, this is year four of their NHL contract.

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The NHL was excited about the deal with Versus because they would be a network showcasing hockey during playoff time. Yet for example, yesterday, with two Game Sevens starting a half hour apart, Versus showed Washington vs. New York, and that’s it.

That’s not a network understanding hockey fans. There is no logical reason why during intermissions, Versus couldn’t cut to live coverage of Hurricanes vs. Devils.

Even worse, since the game they were broadcasting ended in regulation, there was plenty of time for bonus coverage of the end of a Game Seven. Instead, viewers were treated to the studio show and press conferences.

The Versus intermission crew is not in the same dimension as Ernie, Kenny, and Chuck, and I am confident in saying that TNT will cut to other games if they are near the end.

Carolina had an amazing comeback in the last few minutes of the game, and only a handful of people saw it. This is what happens when a cable company runs a channel and can’t show another live game because it’s on a channel run by a different cable company.

In situations like last night, Game Seven should be on the NHL Network. I know the scope isn’t huge, but it’s at least a channel where a good number of hockey fans can access it. If Versus doesn’t have the financial means to have a separate crew broadcasting the other Game Seven while being the home of hockey, the NHL needs a new cable outlet immediately.

In a desperate attempt to be relevant on a network, the NHL took a deal with NBC.

NBC does a very good job with the Olympics and has very solid golf coverage. Otherwise, NBC is vastly inferior in its sports broadcasting, with an overbloated NFL presentation, mediocre Notre Dame football, and a fourth-place prime time schedule to advertise sports.

Their NHL coverage is almost an afterthought, with regular season games focused solely on big market teams. The playoff coverage is a time filler for NBC, to where once the drama builds, the less coverage they show.

Two years ago was the low point, as NBC left coverage of the Sabres-Senators overtime to present the Preakness pre-game show, because we all know how exciting two hours of horse racing build-up can be.

On Saturday, if the Penguins-Caps tilt goes into double OT, which I’m sure would make it a fantastic game, NBC will cut over to the Kentucky Derby pre-game.

No other successful sport would put up with this, yet the NHL is so desperate for attention that they sell their souls for a few hours of network time. NBC cares so little that when the drama builds for Game Five of Penguins vs. Caps next Saturday, NBC won’t be showing that game.

A smart network would capitalize on Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and showcase the stars of a fast-paced game. NBC is just rooting for a quick game so it doesn’t interrupt horse warm-ups.

The solution is fairly simple to an outside observer like me: Expand the relevance of the NHL Network, to where they are showing a good number of the playoff games. Then find a network like WGN or Fox Sports Net that has better name recognition than Versus, and make them the lead cable partner for a weekly game or two and marquee playoff games.

If the NHL feels desperate to where they feel like they need a broadcast partner, work with CBS or ABC to show just the Finals. A better cable partner will more than offset the network exposure the NHL receives in other rounds, since that exposure is usually limited to a few hours before the horse race pre-show begins.

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