NBC Sports Network fills a long-empty void for NHL fans as a legitimate alternative to ESPN

Granted, your tolerance level for Mike Milbury (among others) might be a factor... - Bruce Bennett

For years, we hockey fans complained about our sport not having a viable home on cable tv. Now that the NHL has landed on the NBC Sports Network, do we need to stop complaining and just watch it?

Complaining about hockey's absence from cable television heavyweight ESPN has become as much a part of being a hockey fan as knowing all the words to multiple national anthems. Thanks to the NBC Sports Network, those complaints might not be necessary anymore.

A (relatively) brief history: A long time ago, NHL hockey was a regular feature on ESPN, the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports" and the favorite cable channel of sports fans everywhere. Then something changed. ESPN started taking greater interest in itself as a brand name at the expense of their content, splintering off into several different specialized broadcast channels, magazine publishing, restaurants, theme parks, award shows, vacation getaways and merchandising.

At the same time, ESPN entered into lengthy, expensive contracts with college sports (NCAA), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), auto racing (NASCAR) and the National Football League (NFL). The cable giant's contract with the NHL expired after the 2003-04 NHL season and the league was left to find a deal elsewhere.

While ESPN (understandably, to an extent) devoted their considerable resources to promoting the sports and leagues with whom they had contracted, those leagues and sports that did not have contracts saw their presence shrink. Not only were NHL games no longer broadcast on ESPN, league news and game highlights on the channel's flagship news program "SportsCenter" received seconds, if at all, of airtime, unless something truly remarkable was happening in the sport.

In 2005, the NHL reached a deal with cable giant Comcast and found itself on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), a channel up until that time devoted almost exclusively to camping, fishing and hunting activities. The channel started covering more mainstream sports (including extensive coverage of the Tour De France) and re-branded itself as Versus in September of 2006. Still, their share of the sports market utterly dominated by ESPN was virtually microscopic.

In 2011, Comcast, which owned OLN/Versus, acquired a majority stake in NBC Universal and on January 2, 2012, Versus was re-branded as the NBC Sports Network (NBCSN).

So how is the coverage of our beloved game on this new entity? Well, compared to what we basic cable subscribers have been getting elsewhere for the last eight years, it's pretty darn good, at least in my opinion. If you begin your television sports viewing day between 7am and 9am (Eastern), you get a show called "The 'Lights" (short for highlights, get it?). It harkens back to what was the best thing about classic SportsCenter on ESPN in that it consists entirely of rapid fire highlights with a sprinkling of pertinent sound bites from all the previous night's games in all sports. The show is a half hour long and repeats over two hours. That means you're never more than 30 minutes away from the highlights from any particular game. The ‘Lights also features the little slider bar like the one on SportsCenter that tells you what's coming up.

There are no feature stories but there are also no talking heads behind a desk practicing schtick and catch-phrases. Best of all, there's no contrived debates with pundits shouting their "takes" at each other, something that seems to dominate ESPN these days.

Between weekend afternoons and weeknights, you'll find three or four NHL games a week and they do a pretty good job of spreading the coverage around the league. The Lightning will be on the network on March 18th when they host Philadelphia. The teams featured might be weighted slightly toward the Eastern Conference, but at least it's not like ESPN's baseball coverage that seems to operate under the mandate that every time the Yankees and Red Sox meet, it merits national broadcast exposure, regardless of either team's relevance to the standings.

As far as the coverage itself, your enjoyment of the broadcasts is likely to depend on your tolerance for NBC's crew which features Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre Maguire and Mike Milbury among others, who have proven to be polarizing figures as broadcasters. As a group and as individuals, it's been suggested that they tend to show favoritism towards certain teams at the expense of others. Bias toward (and against) teams hailing from certain media markets isn't something new nor exclusive to NBC, however.

Does NBCSN have the clout and reach that ESPN does? No, they don't. Cork Gaines of RaysIndex.com tells us that ESPN is in 98,516,000 homes, ESPN2 is in 98,477,000 homes and that between television, radio and the internet, the average person spends six hours and 57 minutes a week tuned into some form of ESPN programming. Still, while not as expansive as ESPN, the NBC trademark is nothing to sneeze at. Per the NBC Universal Media Village web site, they claim to be in "more than 80 million homes".

When it's all said and done, complaining about the lack of hockey on ESPN is like complaining about the lack of music on MTV. It's tired and it's pointless. ESPN isn't going to analyze the Lightning power play and MTV isn't going to show the new Depeche Mode video.

What does this mean for us, the hockey fans who complain about ESPN? It means that not only is it time for us to let it go but that now there's an adequate replacement to help us fill that hole. If you have any doubts about the second half of that statement, check it out for yourself and see if you don't agree. If you have any doubts about the first half of that statement, take into consideration the fact that on Monday, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith dismissed the Chicago Blackhawks undefeated streak by claiming that it was padded with tie games.

When one of the network's highest profile personalities indicates a complete lack of familiarity with a basic element of the game, it's time to consider the chord severed. Someone said that's the equivalent of an ex forgetting when your birthday is. I say it's more like an ex remembering your birthday but forgetting you're allergic to almonds and sending you some as a gift.

Also, keep in mind that the possibility exists that your fuzzy memories of the glory years of hockey on ESPN are artificially buffered by the combination of absence and the passage of time. Even if that's not the case, Sports Media Watch points out that the ESPN you think you remember is long gone now.

It's entirely likely that the reason that ESPN has lost their focus, and as a result, much of their relevance, is that they've basically run unopposed since their inception over 30 years ago. Competition is good in that it keeps you on your toes and nobody has really provided any, at least over a sustained period.

It remains to be seen if the NBC Sports Network is up to that challenge, or if they even want to take it on, (former SportsCenter host Dan Patrick, a true throwback to ESPN's golden era, has a show that comes on right after The Lights, something that undoubtedly pleases the NBCSN brass on several levels) but if nothing else, at least we hockey fans finally have a place to get our basic cable fix while they sort it out.

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