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League remains in a television no-man's land

Eighteen months ago, ESPN's decision to end its relationship with the National Hockey League was greeted mostly with indifference. The league had bigger issues on the table, starting with its labor dispute with the players. The lockout threatened to drill the NHL into oblivion once and for all.

ESPN was jumping ship? Zzzz.

Teams made about $2 million each once the ESPN deal was sliced 30 ways. It's peanuts in professional sports. It didn't work for the network, either. ESPN had better ratings during the lockout from the World Series of Poker, which became a national phenomenon with apparent staying power.

In that sense, viewers weren't that much different from NHL owners after all. Both wanted full houses.

In case you didn't know, NBC kicked off its NHL schedule Saturday, giving the league its only national television presence in the United States. Before last season, the network and the league joined hands in risk and reward, sharing in both costs and profits. NBC announced after last season it turned a profit, but exact figures were never revealed.

Give the league credit. Commissioner Gary Bettman is committed to making it a national sport despite his legion of doubters and the fact U.S. fans are mostly found in pockets. Here's hoping his persistence pays off.

It would be beneficial if the league and NBC can extend their contract, which has an option after this year, through the 2009-10 season. It would ensure the NHL will be available to a wider U.S. audience. It also would help NBC sell the game before the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, which quite possibly will be the last time NHLers participate in the Winter Games.

NBC will broadcast games on eight Sunday afternoons, a schedule that totals 26 regional games. The network will carry Buffalo-Philadelphia in the regular-season finale. It's not just the regional or national audience that matters. It helps local fans who have complained about missing games on Versus and MSG.

The contract with Versus also faces an option year after this season but don't expect ESPN to get back in the game. It has shown virtually no interest in hockey. Let's face it, if the NHL is riding Versus, its growth will be minimal in the United States. Half the country, or more, doesn't know Versus exists. Many people who do whine about not being able to follow the puck. It's a smaller issue in traditional hockey markets, but those aren't the people Bettman is trying to capture, either.

Three months ago, there was speculation in Canada that CBC could end its relationship with the NHL when its contract expires after next season. Media giant Bell Globalmedia, which owns CTV and TSN, is expected to make a strong push in an effort to outbid CBC for the NHL's television rights.

Bell Globalmedia has the resources to push around CBC, so it should be interesting to see how much it's willing to pay. It could mean the end of an era.

CBC's popular "Hockey Night in Canada" has been part of the culture across Canada and in U.S. border cities, such as Buffalo and Detroit, for generations. If it succeeds, TSN would likely put together its own show that would include a similar framework.

The problem is that TSN is available only in Canada, so the U.S. markets that currently have CBC would no longer have access to whatever replaces "Hockey Night." It helps explain where the NHL has been and where it's going. It's a better game, more entertaining and terrific in high-definition.

But for the foreseeable future, it will remain a regional sport.


Fans flunk vote

I understand the NHL All-Star Game is for the fans, but they can't be trusted to send the best players. Atlanta winger Marian Hossa finishing 11th among Eastern Conference forwards and Teemu Selanne finishing seventh among Western Conference forwards is a joke.

It pains me to say this, but Hossa should have been a starter over Daniel Briere. Sidney Crosby was a lock. Alex Ovechkin entered the weekend tied for the league lead with 28 goals and was behind only Crosby with 61 points this season despite playing on a mediocre team. Selanne was leading his conference in scoring.

My first-team rosters:

Eastern Conference: Forwards -- Crosby, Hossa, Ovechkin; defense -- Sheldon Souray, Tomas Kaberle; goal -- Martin Brodeur.

Western Conference: Forwards -- Selanne, Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla; defense -- Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom; goal -- J-S Giguere.


Flyers dangling 'D'

Joni Pitkanen continued to be the subject of trade rumors last week, and the Oilers continued to express interest in the Flyers defenseman.

Edmonton has been looking for a puck-mover since they traded Chris Pronger to the Ducks. Philly tried siphoning forwards Joffrey Lupul and Raffi Torres from Edmonton. The Oilers would be willing to send one, preferably Lupul, but not both.

Lupul has had problems adjusting to playing for his hometown team. He had 12 goals, 18 points and was minus-16 in his first 43 games for Edmonton. Last season, he had 28 goals, 53 points and was minus-13 in 81 games for the Ducks.

Edmonton is keeping an eye on Kings defenseman Lubomir Vishnovsky, but Los Angeles will likely wait until just before the trade deadline to move him because that's when it will have the most leverage.


Predators have a plan

Nashville owner Craig Leipold is prepared to sell 40 percent of the franchise to local investors -- he and his wife Helen live in Racine, Wis. -- with the idea they can generate more business and improve attendance. The Predators average about 14,700 fans per game this season, 23rd in the league.

The franchise needs to average 13,200 fans this season or it will risk losing 25 percent of the revenue sharing it would have received after the season. Last year, the Predators received $10 million in shared revenue, which helped them sign Jason Arnott and former Sabres winger J.P. Dumont.

"The revenue-sharing is the lifeblood of this franchise," he said. "We've gone through a tough fight for that revenue-sharing check to come in, and it's now making its way here. If we're not making the full boat, we're in serious trouble."

Leipold bought the expansion Predators for $80 million in 1997 with help from the city. Forbes magazine recently pegged their value at $134 million.



Stars center Stu Barnes, co-owner of the WHL Tri-City Americans, after goalie Carey Price was the best goaltender in the World Junior Championships for Canada: "I'm thinking we may have to give him a raise from $75 a week to $85."


Around the boards

*South Buffalo native Patrick Kane was listed fourth among North American players on Central Scouting's latest prospects list, released last week. Kane, 18, had five goals and nine points during the World Junior Championships in Sweden. He's scheduled to play in the NHL Top Prospects game Wednesday in Quebec City.

*East Amherst native Phil DiSimone, the former Nichols star, entered the weekend leading the United States Hockey League in scoring with 12 goals and 43 points in 28 games. One scout says DiSimone, 19, who plays for Sioux City, has NHL-caliber talent but has flown under the radar. He's headed for the University of New Hampshire next season.

*Tim Taylor is facing surgery to repair bone spurs that have given him nagging hip problems. Lightning GM Jay Feaster has suggested Taylor have the surgery now and start the six-month rehab. Taylor was thinking about finishing the season and tending to his duties as captain. Taylor, 38, is signed through next year.

*NBC color man and lovable loudmouth Brett Hull (remember him?) on his favorite uniforms of Chicago and Detroit: "Classy, beautiful. I'm no fashion expert, but I know Buffalo's are horrible."

*Jan Hejda, the Sabres' fourth-round pick in 2003, has found a home in Edmonton. The Sabres never signed the defenseman, who was 25 when they selected him. He's playing his first NHL season at age 28 and lately has been getting major minutes. He played 26:47 last week against San Jose.

*The Blues sold about 4,500 additional tickets for Saturday's game against Los Angeles after announcing Dec. 30 it would give fans free food from an hour before the game through the second intermission. What, it didn't include nachos or beer? Bummer.


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