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Sabres fans may face TV shutout

Most Buffalo Sabres fans -- and some team employees -- had to scramble from their couches Tuesday night to find a buddy or a bar with the OLN channel. It's something they'll have to get used to if the Sabres start closing in on the Stanley Cup.

OLN is the official cable home of the National Hockey League, and its broadcast Tuesday night featured the Sabres visiting the Washington Capitals. However, only about 10 percent of subscribers to Adelphia Cable have OLN, and the channel isn't available at all on Dish Network.

Since OLN also has exclusive U.S. rights to many playoff games, living rooms across Western New York could start emptying if the Sabres' breakout season continues into May and June.

"I was upset," said Buffalo fan Jeff Friedman, an Adelphia customer who discovered right at opening faceoff Tuesday that he doesn't get OLN. "I spend enough money on cable I thought I would get it." After flipping through channels and listening to the first period on the radio, Friedman hurried down Elmwood Avenue to watch the game at a bar. While there, he saw that Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn also had come in to watch the game.

"Living in the city it was nice to be able to drive in my car a half-mile to watch the game," Friedman said, "but I'm not going to be out in a bar on Tuesday night if I can watch the game at home."

It could become common. OLN has exclusive U.S. rights to the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals and shares exclusivity with NBC during the conference finals. OLN and NBC also can take two games each from every series in the second round of the playoffs.

The only way to get OLN on Adelphia is to subscribe to the priciest two packages, the Gold and Ultimate. The Gold package costs about $85 a month, according to an Adelphia salesperson. The Ultimate package is $106.

A Dish Network salesperson said it dropped the channel last year because OLN's cost made it a higher-tier channel, but the station insisted it wanted to be placed on the lower tiers. DirecTV carries OLN on all its packages, ranging from the $49.99 basic to the $99.99 per month premier choice.

"Obviously, we want everybody to see the games," Amy Phillips, OLN director of public relations, said Wednesday. "It is a concern. But it is available on the higher tiers [of Adelphia]."

CBC of Canada, which is available to Adelphia subscribers and other viewers with an antenna, isn't affected by U.S. exclusivity. It also will televise the conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals. The biggest trouble for local viewers, then, could come in the second round, assuming the streaking Sabres advance. If OLN claims two second-round Sabres games, viewers turning to CBC likely won't find center Chris Drury and goalie Ryan Miller. CBC favors Canadian teams, so if the Sabres were playing at the same time as, say, the Montreal Canadiens or Calgary Flames, CBC would pick them over Buffalo.

The Sabres have 18 regular-season games remaining, and 17 will be at their normal home of MSG. The season finale April 18 in Carolina will be on OLN. The first round of the playoffs will return to MSG, as will any second-round games that NBC or OLN decline to pick up.

The Sabres, who have yet to qualify for the playoffs but have the third-best record in their conference, have heard the fans' complaints but are trying not to get ahead of themselves.

"If and when we should qualify for the playoffs, there are some different guidelines come playoff time as to where people will see our games," said Michael Gilbert, Sabres director of public relations. "For right now our focus is on the regular season, then the playoffs when we get there."

The NHL is in its first season as a broadcaster partner with OLN, which is owned by Comcast. Cable giant ESPN dropped the league last May after a 12-year partnership, declining a $60 million option for this season. After OLN offered the league a three-year deal worth more than $200 million, the NHL again approached ESPN. But ESPN, which is available to 27 million more viewers nationwide than OLN, decided not to match the offer.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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