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NHL ALL-STARS READY TO AIR TALENT ON NETWORK TV

The National Hockey League unveils one of its showcase events here today.

The question now is, who's watching?

"I think all the guys are conscious of the fact that it's on (network) TV," said Edmonton Oilers defenseman Kevin Lowe.

"You can bet guys will be busting their butts for that."

"It" is the NHL All-Star Game, and the fact that it's being broadcast by NBC (1:30 p.m., Ch. 2) for a nearly nationwide U.S. audience is not wasted on the players or the league.

Television is the financial savior of sports in this and other decades. The fact the NHL is without a network contract isn't expected to change because of one televised outing, but everyone involved with this 41st All-Star Game is aware that there is a great deal at stake.

"I know Grets (Wayne Gretzky) is the No. 1 guy in the league and he doesn't have anything to prove in one of these, but I also know that he never ceases to have the game in mind," Lowe said. "He'll be out there playing his butt off and not for endorsements.

"He (Gretzky) knows it's a big thing for the game and there's going to be a big audience," Lowe added.

How big is open to some speculation. An NHL official said almost 90 percent of NBC's affiliates have decided to carry the game. And with some notable exceptions (Atlanta being the largest), that puts the NHL in most television markets in the United States.

"It's important to keep in mind that the NHL does not expect to get a national contract out of this," said Stu Hackel, the league's general manager for publishing and video, "but the expectations are high. This will be the first time that Wayne and Mario (Lemieux) are on national TV together."

Though a fairly common occurrence in Canada and some cable markets in the United States, the fact that two of the league's all-time greatest stars are going head to head in an all-star contest in Lemieux's adopted city is not necessarily of significant interest to many U.S. sports fans.

After all, this isn't Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson. It is, however, the best the NHL has to offer. Maybe the best it has ever had to offer, and everyone involved seeks to take advantage of that.

Once a weeknight pause in an overly long schedule, this All-Star Game has been expanded to a two-day weekend affair complete with skills competitions, an old-timers game, autograph sessions and the requisite dinners, speeches and meetings.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have done their part, selling some 48,000 tickets in separate packages for the game and Saturday's Heroes of Hockey contest (featuring former NHL all-stars and won by the Wales Conference old-timers, 7-1), skills practice session and the skills competition. Everything but the game itself was made available Saturday to SportsChannel America, the NHL's limited-access cable-rights holder. NBC, in partnership with SportsChannel America for more than a year, got the rights for today's game at Civic Arena and next year's All-Star matchup in Chicago.

Hockey fans are expected to eat up the cable package, but Gretzky and Lemieux are the keys to the network telecast.

"That's why it's silly for us to say that just because NBC can find plenty of affiliates willing to carry a game in which the Athlete of the Decade (Gretzky) goes against the great No. 66 (Lemieux) that we should be especially encouraged," said Joel Nixon, the NHL's director of broadcasting.

Making his remarks to members of the Pittsburgh media several days before the weekend events, Nixon added that he felt it would be relatively easy to clear a game like today's all over the country because of the stature of the players involved.

"But whether you could get NBC's affiliates interested in showing a game between Montreal and Hartford is a different matter," Nixon said.

Nevertheless, it is a first step.

"It's step No. 1," said Scotty Connal, a former NBC Sports and ESPN executive who now runs a consulting firm that includes the NHL among its clients. "It's someplace to go from. You've got to crawl before you can walk. It's absolutely a positive for the league."

It's not a bad show either. In addition to Gretzky and Lemieux, the game has an exceptionally good supporting cast.

The Buffalo Sabres have placed four players -- Dave Andreychuk, Phil Housley, Daren Puppa and Pierre Turgeon -- on the Wales Conference squad. That's the same number as the Montreal Canadiens, whose coach, Pat Burns, filled out the supporting roster.

The Los Angeles Kings were to be represented by four players, the most of any team in the Campbell Conference. In reality it's three Kings and Bernie Nicholls, who was traded Saturday to the New York Rangers of the Wales Conference, but Nicholls will stay with the Campbell stars for today's extravaganza.

"It's a big thrill for me, but I think it's even more exciting for the other three guys," said Housley, now a veteran of three All-Star outings. "I think it shows well for us as a team. When you do well as a team, the individual recognition comes your way. I think we'll all be better for the experience."

The NHL is hoping it can say the same.

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