This past Saturday night, I did something I haven't been able to do in a while: I watched an entertaining ice hockey game on ESPN.
Boston University played Miami University (OH) during the NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Championship. Miami sought its first national title in any sport and for a while, it looked as if it was in the bag.
But BU, a traditional NCAA hockey power, pulled its goalie with more than three minutes left and scored two desperation goals during the final minute of the third period to force an overtime. Then, halfway through the first sudden death overtime period, a slap shot from the point deflected off of a Miami defenseman and over the shoulder of the Miami goaltender to give BU its fifth national championship.
The drama of overtime hockey, especially when a championship is at stake, is some of the most riveting entertainment in sports. Unfortunately, it will be a long time before I see hockey on ESPN again.
That's because the NHL, the so-called fourth major American professional sport, has disappeared from the airwaves. It's
been this way for a few years now, but with the NHL playoffs underway, hockey fans are really being left out in the cold.
The 2004-05 NHL lockout forced the cancellation of an entire NHL season and the demise of the league's TV deal with ESPN. It also caused the demise of TV hockey.
ESPN airs the NBA, NFL, NASCAR, college football, the World Series of Poker, professional bowling and the Scripps National Spelling Bee. If it's a sport, or even if it resembles a sport, it's on ESPN ... except the NHL.
For some, the absence of the NHL from the worldwide leader in sports broadcasting doesn't seem to be a big deal, but ESPN looks out for its own, and as a result, the NHL suffers.
I was watching SportsCenter the other day with a friend who was disappointed with the lack of hockey highlights, especially considering the playoff races were about as close as they could be.
"Why does SportsCenter hate hockey?" he asked.
The answer is simple, and it's not because nobody cares about the NHL. It's because showing hockey highlights encourages SportsCenter viewers to turn the station and tune into hockey games live on Versus or NBC. With all the highlights to choose from, why would ESPN choose to show the ones that didn't happen on its own network?
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Hockey produces some of the prettiest goals, hardest hits and most dramatic finishes in all of sports. Hockey highlights, which by their nature only show the best of the best from each game, are probably some of the best advertising for a league like the NHL, struggling to get fans to realize that low scoring doesn't necessarily mean low excitement.
Because the NHL decided to give up ESPN in favor of the up-and-coming Versus network, it indirectly gave up its best connection with the average sports fan.
When I can't find anything to watch on TV, I tend to turn to ESPN. Even if I don't really care about what's on, my pre-programmed sports brain tells me that ESPN is my best option.
Hockey used to benefit from this mentality. People would turn on ESPN because of its reputation as the place to be in sports entertainment, and if hockey was on, maybe viewers would stick around. Nobody flips to Versus as their go-to channel, especially since many cable providers, including that at the University of Richmond, don't even carry the network. Just because of convenience, the NHL loses out on millions of viewers a year.
And what about the die-hard hockey fan?
If there is any demographic that embraces hockey, it's college-aged men. Just look around campus. The number of hockey jerseys per capita, even at a small, southern school, is far greater than it is in most of the country.
But for many of the New-England transplants and others here at Richmond who love hockey, the only option is turning on-line to NHL Center Ice, a plan that allows fans to pay a subscription fee to watch games live on their computers. For someone like me, who is too cheap to pay for the plan and too busy to sit in front of my computer all night, the lack of TV hockey relegates me to settle for daily checks of NHL.com.
Bottom line: The NHL needs ESPN.
Even if the two sides worked out an agreement that involved fewer games than in the past, at least hockey would be back where it belongs and readily available to anyone who wanted to tune in.
So as this year's playoffs are set to begin, with exciting first-round match-ups between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals, the Detroit Red Wings and the Anaheim Ducks and more, fans will have to settle for coverage on Versus and weekend games on NBC.
Unfortunately, no matter how exciting this year's NHL postseason turns out, it probably won't make too many headlines. But hey, at least you can check out the highlights on SportsCenter, right after in-depth coverage of NFL mini-camps and the World Series of Poker.
Contact sports editor Reilly Moore at email@example.com
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