Same sport, new attitude.
Gone is Fox and its blue-streaked puck and dancing robots to announce goals being scored.
After five seasons of bad luck and worse ratings on Fox, the NHL somehow managed to triple its television rights deal and get a five-year, $600 million contract from Disney for exclusive U.S. rights. That means about $4 million per club, or about half of Dominik Hasek's salary.
Of course, ABC joins its two Disney brothers who have carried the NHL for years -- ESPN and ESPN 2. The arrangement will enable Disney to better package and promote the games. And more importantly -- expand advertising revenue.
"It means we all will be pulling the same rope for the betterment of the team," said ESPN analyst Bill Clement. "Instead of competing, we are cross-promoting. Before Fox was pulling the league one way, ESPN the other. Now we have the full cooperation of the NHL."
Clement said he had signed a new five-year deal to work a double shift for ESPN and ABC. He said he expected to be paired again on ESPN's top team with play-by-play man Gary Thorne.
The pairing will add consistency to the coverage, especially during the Stanley Cup finals.
Last year, the Fox team of John Davidson and Mike Emrick did all the games in Dallas and Thorne and Clement did all the games in Buffalo.
Under the new plan, Clement and Thorne will do all the games in the league's most important event. And the same technicians who man the cameras and do everything all season for ESPN will work the ABC games. Fox used its own personnel for the few games it carried.
"There will be marked improvement because of that," said Harry Neale, the Amherst resident who is lead analyst for CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. "Any technician will tell you that if you haven't done hockey, it's a unique experience."
Davidson is expected to join John Saunders on ABC's studio team, which has to be an improvement on the Fox team.
The NHL needs to distinguish itself now more than ever with Wayne Gretzky following Mario Lemieux and Pat LaFontaine into retirement and Hasek poised to be next.
Gretzky's final game with the Rangers was an emotional one televised by Fox. It was the highest-rated hockey telecast in years. And it received only slightly higher than a 4 rating -- or slightly less than a regular season baseball game gets on Fox.
When the game's greatest player can't generate an audience higher than that for his final game, it's obvious that hockey has a long climb uphill.
"It won't help," said Neale of Gretzky's retirement. "It reminds me when Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux left and we all said the league isn't going to be as good as it used to be. Gretzky is a bigger loss, because he was a promoter of the game at all levels. But the game is too good for it to have anything but a temporary effect."
"It would have hurt more if he decided to retire when he dominated the sport," said Clement, who expects Jaromir Jagr, Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros to fill the void.
Disney doesn't expect ratings miracles, figuring the cost of all the games on ESPN and ESPN 2 is a loss leader for its nightly "NHL2Night" highlights show and SportsCenter highlights.
It also has rescued "NHL Cool Shots," the weekly hockey magazine show hosted by former Sabres marketing leader Jennifer Smith, from regional network oblivion. It will carry it on both ESPN (5 p.m. Wednesdays) and ESPN2 (2 a.m. Saturdays).
And Disney also is hoping the popularity of in-line skating and the increasing number of cities building hockey rinks will increase interest -- and ratings -- during Disney's lengthy run.
Of course, interest in Buffalo has rarely been higher after its trip to the Stanley Cup finals a few months ago.
But Clement, a Stanley Cup winner with the Philadelphia Flyers, warns that it will be difficult for the team to play with the same intensity in October that it had for the more meaningful games in April, May and June.
"No matter how much you tell yourself to prepare, there always is a hangover effect," said Clement. "I expect the Sabres will have a six-week to two-month hangover. But at the end, they will be there as a contender."
One thing is for sure. Buffalo fans will be able to see all the Sabres games if they have cable.
Here's a look at the outlets carrying hockey.
The NHL All-Star game from Toronto, Feb. 6, 2000, is the first telecast of its new contract. There will be a New York Rangers game available each week, starting March 18. ABC has asked the Sabres to hold their final regular-season game April 9 against Washington as a possible afternoon game. If it becomes meaningless and ABC passes, it will go back to Empire. ABC also will carry up to five games of the Stanley Cup finals in prime time.
Its coverage starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday with live coverage of the ceremony retiring Gretzky's number before the Rangers-Edmonton game. The Sabres game at Pittsburgh on Nov. 16 and a home game with Philadelphia on Dec. 14 are part of its 27-game regular-season package, 22 of which are exclusive telecasts. It also will carry at least the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals.
Its schedule is increased 33 percent to 102 regular-season games and it also will have full coverage of the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The schedule includes seven Sabres games before the end of the year, one at Dallas on Nov. 3. However, none of the games will enter our market because Empire has exclusivity here.
It is carrying 79 of the Sabres' 82 regular-season game, only passing on the two ESPN games and the April 9 finale with Washington that ABC and ESPN have blocked out. Rick Jeanneret, Jim Lorentz and Danny Gare remain the announcers.
Neale is the analyst alongside Bob Cole or Chris Cuthbert for Hockey Night in Canada's Saturday coverage of the Toronto Maple Leafs on CBLT. Three Buffalo games with Canadian teams are on the schedule but the only one certain to air here is a Feb. 26 game at Toronto. The others -- Jan. 8 at Ottawa and an April game with Montreal -- probably will be bounced by the Toronto CBC affiliate in favor of Leafs games being played at the same time.
Marc Crawford, a CBC analyst last season, is back in the league coaching Vancouver. His position has been filled by Greg Millen, who left CBC for a season to work on a cable package.
The local affiliate, CFTO, Channel 9, is carrying 10 regular-season Toronto games, starting with a Nov. 26 date with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Of course, hockey fanatics with pizza dishes can maximize their coverage by purchasing a NHL package from their satellite provider.