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ESKO… The NHL All Star weekend is past us, and to me the biggest highlight of the weekend was Big ‘Z’ Zdeno Chara breaking his own hardest shot record in the skills competition. The new record is 108.8 mph! That bests his prior record of 105.9 set just last year. The game itself was okay, if you like half-speed hockey void of physical contact, but just for the record, Team Chara beat Team Alfredsson 12-9 and former Wild sniper Marian Gaborik won the game MVP award. I’m not a Gabby fan and I’ll leave it at that.
The weekend was a great showcase for the NHL, and commissioner Gary Bettman also gave a State of the League presser. As always, it was informative, with updates on the Phoenix Coyote situation (3 potential suitors), next year’s All Star game (Columbus), and the upcoming CBA negotiations (no date set yet). With all that was going on for the weekend, though, at some point I got to thinking, what was one of the major topics about the league and the game that no one was talking about?
During the lockout year of 2004-2005, the league TV contract with ESPN expired. When the lockout was settled, a new TV deal was going to have to be put in place. Here is some background. When ESPN first hit the airwaves, I, like a lot of sports maniacs, was ecstatic. And I must say that for the better part of the next two decades, they got better and better. Then, in my opinion, they started spending quite a bit more of their available airtime engaged in self promotion. That was fine with me; I understand marketing and promotion and their need to do it.
At some point it got out of control, in my view, and then when they started broadcasting umpteen hours per week of guys playing poker, I was pushed off the proverbial cliff. Poker is a sport? I could handle Australian Rules football, cliff diving, and cheerleading competitions, but guys playing cards? I’ll stop there before I go on a rant about that. However, the network was also covering the NHL, which in my life has been the numero uno sports league since I was a little kid. And they did a good job of it, too. They had arguably one of the best broadcast teams going in Bill Clement and Gary Thorne, and their game coverage on Sports Center was good.
However, their positioning of the NHL against the other three sports of the four majors still made it clear that they were of the firm belief that the NHL was on the tailend of that group. And economics and ratings may have borne that out. But I could never figure out if they were willing to work with the league to change that, and my opinion is they weren’t interested in partnering with the NHL to that extent. So, the lockout cost us a year, and when the league came back and it was time to decide upon a new TV partner, it wasn’t ESPN, the self-anointed “leader.” (Maybe that’s what bothered me so much about them, that they declared themselves king, when I grew up as a Wide World of Sports kid.)
The leader, after believing that they bid too much on the previous deal, underbid and lost. Which was okay with me—I was sick of the leader. The winning bidder was OLN network of Canada. They would become the Versus network and would begin broadcasting NHL games with the start of the 2005-2006 season. Some fans were livid. OLN was on many fewer cable and satellite providers than the leader, and that was going to cost the league viewers.
I had access to Versus, so I didn’t go into a funk and was anxious to see what the product would be like. I was pleasantly surprised. They did pregame with a panel and had a postgame show. By the end of their second season of coverage, I was satisfied that they were doing as good as a job as the leader had, if not better. And now there is no question about it anymore. In the meantime, with the NHL off of their waves, NHL coverage on the leader is decidedly at a minimum. They have Barry Melrose, and he is okay and gives good analysis, but…
With the post-lockout NHL gaining in popularity, with more providers adding Versus to their lineup, aided by some of the best Stanley Cup and Olympic tournaments ever, league recognition was booming. We had Versus games two nights a week and the NBC Sunday games, with full playoff coverage between the two. In the background, you had Bettman quietly cultivating a unique business relationship and friendship with NBC’s influential Dick Ebersol. And now with a variety of mergers having taken place, as of the New Year, Versus has become the NBC Sports network.
You can now view NHL tilts several nights per week and on the main channel on Sundays. The coverage has never been better, and while total TV sets available may not yet match up with ESPN, I believe that fans who really want to see league games can thus make “the leader” irrelevant in the NHL universe, and I can’t help but think that somewhere Gary Bettman is doing the moonwalk while thumbing his nose at the freaking leader! You go buddy! You rule! Take that, leader…
SUPER BOWL SUNDAY is around the corner, and briefly, with the Giants and Patriots set to do battle, here is how I see it. While I believe that the Giants can’t “shut down” the Pats’ offense, I do think they can slow it down, and conversely I don’t see the Pats’ defense having that kind of effect on the Giants’ offense. I really don’t give either coach an edge over the other, and special teams may be a wash. And there are not enough players left from their prior SB matchup to make this into a real revenge, grudge type of game, in my opinion. I’m going with Eli and the Giants. Give me a 28-23 score, with the total points being at 51 or under… PEACE!
MFAN NFL PLAYOFF PICKS: 7-3 coming up on the Super Bowl. I am at 8-2 on the National “U Pickem” contest, and I am proud to say that after some poor regular season prognosticatin’ had me in the middle of the pack (5500 out of 10,253 on the Strib site), with some solid playoff picks I have risen to 330 out of 10,253. I don’t think I can win the contest but I am happy with the strong finish…OVER & OUT!
Marc Elliott is a freelance sports opinion writer who splits time between his hometown in Illinois and Minnesota. Elliott grew up in the Twin Cities with many of his childhood neighbors working or playing for the Vikings and Twins. He participated in baseball, football and hockey before settling on hockey as his own number one sport. Elliott recently wrote “The Masked Fan Speaks” column for the Lake County News Chronicle for the past ten years and was a prominent guest on the former “All Sports” WDSM 710AM in Duluth.