NHL courting fans again

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Rest assured, hockey fans. The National Hockey League will be coming back in two weeks with hat in hand.

Contrite is not a word one normally associates with the NHL but after absconding with what many Canadians feel is an important part of their lives for an entire season, the people who run it know they have to get back into everyone's good books when regular season play resumes Oct. 5.

They also know the most direct means to the roiling masses is through television.

It's one of the main reasons for post-lockout rules changes designed to let stars shine, scorers score and results stand. And while it isn't among the leading tactical tweaks, the shootout is made for TV.

It'll keep fans around until the end. It will guarantee suspense. It should ensure last-minute fan dialogue and impromptu wagers.

"It's what I call the equivalent of the college basketball or NBA buzzer-beater," said John Shannon, head of Leafs TV. "Let's face it, whether it's CFPL (A Channel) in London or ESPN in the U.S. , in a game that has no meaning in the standings, if it goes to a shootout, you're going to see it in the highlights."

Leafs TV, the club-owned network, will telecast 13 regular season games via a digital cable TV package and will produce 25 regional games for TSN with Joe Bowen and Harry Neale on the mikes.

You might ask why the Leafs would designate four home and nine away games to TV via digital cable and satellite for viewers to pay a couple of bucks a month to see. The answer is because they can.

Whether it's the venerable Hockey Night In Canada, the newer Leafs TV, the U.S. rights-holder or the folks who have the Detroit Red Wings broadcast rights, the people who air the games are part of the NHL's commitment to regaining fan support.

The league is seeking to enhance the game with speed and scoring; the networks hope to bring that home.

Shannon compares exhibition game telecasts to the teams themselves. Everyone is working out the kinks.

"We're trying a lot of stuff such as multiple-lens cameras to see where it takes us," he said, explaining the camera has three or four lenses which can give the impression of taking the viewer away from the play to an earlier play.

Like the players, the people on the cameras and in the control truck have to familiarize themselves with the new rules, particularly the removal of the red line and the instant move from a defensive position to an all-out attack two zones ahead.

As usual, Red Wings fans in London won't get Wings' games without subscribing to the Centre Ice package on cable. However, a few games will be available on WJBK Fox 2, but the rest of the 65 games are only available Fox Sports Net Detroit, in addition to the three exhibition games and all playoffs not designated as exclusive national TV broadcasts.

Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond return as the broadcast crew, with Larry Murphy and Pat Verbeek rotating in place of Redmond for some road games. Four Wings games will be on NBC network, eight on the new NHL cable rightsholder, Outdoor Life Network.

The NHL is well aware of major league baseball's return after its work stoppage a decade ago. Some fans never came back.

It's not likely to be as severe in Canada. Not that Canadians treasure their hockey more than Americans do their baseball.

People who can put up with government boondoggles that would bring down other governments around the world surely can handle a one-year hockey blackout.

Still, when it marches into our living rooms and dens with cap in hand a couple of weeks hence, the NHL better wait a while before placing it on the hat rack.


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