By Jason Ioli
So, before we get into game four of the Stanley Cup Finals and all of the stress and anxiety that comes with it, I want to spend a few moments talking about the television coverage that the NHL has had since the lockout. The league and its glorious commissioner have spent so much time gorging themselves on the table scraps that NBC throws at them, that they do not seem to notice Versus providing much better coverage. I can understand the NHL’s desire for TV time from a major network, but the partnership they have with versus not only saved the league after the lockout, but is probably responsible for the coverage NBC has given. If NHL regular season games are not being televised on Versus, then the casual fan base is non-existent and a major network like NBC has no reason to dedicate air time to games. Even if those are only a handful of late season and playoff games.
As the NHL was coming out of the lockout in 2005, ESPN decided not to sign a new television deal with the NHL, so a new agreement was signed with the Outdoor Life Network. I admit that at that time I barely knew where that station was on my TV and thought the NHL had completely gone off the deep end. During that first season, OLN would bookend an NHL broadcast with programming like bull riding or deer hunting. But I still watched every game eagerly, not sure if it would be the last. Then in 2006, the station changed its name to Versus and upgraded its programming a little. There is still bull riding and the occasional hunting show, but they have since added more original programs and I actually find myself watching the station when there is no hockey on. The station still sits at the end of my list of channels, but I know the number by heart, so there is that.
The NHL and NBC have a long history together. In the 1960’s, NBC was the first network to broadcast Stanley Cup playoff games. In the 1970’s, they expanded their coverage to include several regular season games as well. But the television coverage ended after the ’74-’75 season and would not resume again for over 30 years. NBC did broadcast the NHL All-star Game for a few years in the 1990’s, but they did not televise another regular season of playoff game until 2006. Although, to be fair, the coverage would have started in 2005 if it had not been for the lockout. Since then, NBC has aired at least six weeks of regular season “games of the week” and up to five of the Stanley Cup Finals games. They have also broadcast the Winter Classic outdoor game on New Years day for the past two years.
So let us compare the coverage of the two stations. NBC airs six regular season games a year and up to five games of the finals for a whopping 11 games total. Versus, on the other hand, airs at least 54 regular season games a year, all of the games of the first three rounds of the playoffs, and two finals games. Without doing the math, it is obvious that Versus is offering much more comprehensive coverage of the NHL. They have dedicated their channel to being a portal for the fans to find the NHL. Meanwhile, NBC throws the fans a bone every few weeks at the end of the season and then jumps in during the finals like they are the kings of hockey. Also, the coverage of the games just seems better on Versus. I know the main announcers are the same, but it is the secondary people that do it. Having Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire make watching NBC almost unbearable. At no time was this more evident then during the second intermission in game 2. McGuire, obviously a Pens fan, and Milbury, apparently rooting for the Wings, went at it like a couple of 8th grade yahoos about whose team was better. The only thing that was missing was a “yo mama” comment. Bill Patrick, Keith Jones, and Brian Engblom on Versus make them look like amateurs comparably. Now I like Darren Pang, but Chris Simpson on Versus just has in game stand ups and interviews that leave Panger crying in his soup. During game three, she actually found Bryan Trottier in the crowd for an interview about his opinion of the series and the upcoming draft. The draft being pertinent since Trottier is Executive Director of Player Development for the New York Islanders. With all of that in mind, I don’t know about you, but I would rather just watch the games on Versus.
Now I know that Versus has taken a lot of flak from fans over the past few years for its coverage of games and the playoffs, but consider the alternative. With out them, there is only local coverage. While that is fine for some, there are a lot of fans, like myself, who so not live in the same city as their team. I don’t get to watch every Pens game on FSN, so I count on Versus to give me some coverage, any coverage, of hockey throughout the season. They jam packed as many playoff games as they could into the early rounds. Yes, there were still a lot of games that did not air, but at least there was something.
So as we prepare for game four of the finals, which will be the last broadcast on Versus this season, instead of complaining about some aspect of the game, how about being grateful that it is on TV in the first place? We should be thanking Versus for being the only home that we have to consistently watch hockey all season.
Versus….I salute you!
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