Friday, August 24, 2007

Will the conversion of goal judge booths to premium seating help teams?

I read a pretty interesting article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer that discusses how the elimination of goal judge booths could help National Hockey League teams make some extra revenue. The booths would be replaced with a small number of premium seats to the lower bowl areas of their major league arenas. We are talking about the small areas behind each goal where the goal judges used to sit and rule when a goal is scored. Hockey writer Tim Panaccio raised the question in his article titled "NHL verdict goes against goal judges". At the same time, The Sports Network (TSN) did a nice feature story on this subject as well called "No more goal judge?"

In the case of the Philadelphia Flyers, a total of 12 leather "goal judge seats" were installed inside Wachovia Center during this summer (two rows of three seats each behind each goal). The team plans to package these premium seats with a lease of a suite so season ticket holders could have a choice in either using these seats or entertain guests in their suite on a given game night. Not a bad idea, if you ask me.

This only became an option for the Flyers after the NHL decided to eliminate the goal judge booths from all 30 arenas and place the goal judges up in the press box or similar areas in the arena depending on its configuration. The initial experiment took place at last season's All-Star Game in Dallas back on January 24th. Panaccio brought up in his article that this might be of concern where there is the need for definitive and conclusive evidence to correctly determine goals being counted and a goal judge directly behind the net could still offer the best view. Not to take anything away from goal judges' abilities, but video replay has over time been relied on more in making the right call. The on-ice referees and the "war room" up in Toronto have had the final say one way or another anyway. So it remains to be seen how much longer goal judges will play an active role. Keep in mind that all teams will eventually have high-definition cameras installed for a even clearer view from above the goals to see if a puck crossed the goal line, so that will be a factor in how much longer goal judges will even be needed.

Either way, this is a money maker for NHL teams to have a few extra seats to sell. We all know that. Teams like the Flyers can only benefit with this plan for a few very lucky season ticket holders.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Rick Tocchet sentenced to two years probation

We remember Rick Tocchet as a tough and versatile player who was not afraid to drop the gloves when it meant to protecting teammates. Now he'll have to fight for staying on the good side of the NHL.

In February 2006, Burlington County authorities in southern New Jersey uncovered an illegal sports gambling dubbed as "Operation Slap Shot". At one point during the late stages of the investigation after it became public, Tocchet's hockey boss Wayne Gretzky and his wife Janet were questioned and that had the hockey world talking. The Gretzkys were not involved, but Tocchet was.

After a plea agreement was reached, Tocchet was sentenced this morning at a Mount Holly, New Jersey courtroom to two years probation for third degree conspiracy and third degree promotion of gambling. Since this is his first offense, he will likely not serve any jail time.

New Jersey state trooper James Harney was sentenced earlier this month to five years in prison for his role in the gambling ring and James Ulmer as a third man involved in this case will be sentenced on August 24th.

Tocchet has been on indefinite leave from his last NHL job as an assistant coach under Wayne Gretzky with the Phoenix Coyotes. At this point, it has not been determined if the team and the league will allow him to return to that job. One question I do have is whether Tocchet will be a distraction to the Coyotes if he is allowed to return. That will be something that team management will have to decide.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

2007-2008 national television schedule released

While many fans and other hockey observers continue to ponder the "what if" scenario of whether or not the National Hockey League would have their games return to ESPN as early as the 2008-2009 season, the league unveiled yesterday their national television schedule for the upcoming campaign.

One part of it already disappoints me. Only the back end of the two-game NHL Premiere series in London will be shown on national television here in the United States. For the September 30th game between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, viewers can see it on Versus. But to see the first game that will be played the previous day, only HDNet subscribers can see it. It should be fun to watch the defending champions go up against their big city rivals at the new O2 Arena on back-to-back days (both games will start at noon Eastern Time) at a place where hockey's popularity continues to grow in the United Kingdom. I still remember the New York Rangers playing a preseason game in London at the start of their 1993-1994 season-long journey to ending a 54-year Stanley Cup title drought.

Versus and NBC will each begin its third straight season as the national television homes for the NHL. How well the do in their efforts to improve ratings from last season remains to be seen. Versus has hired former one-time ESPN Sportscenter anchor Bill Patrick (not to be confused with Dan Patrick) to be their new studio host. Bill Clement (Patrick's predecessor) has left and won't be doing his NHL on NBC job either. Pierre McGuire will take over Clement's role as an intermission show host in addition to his game analyst duties. Versus will show 57 games exclusively in 2007-2008 (all available in high definition, I may add), so make sure you have the channel if you want to get those particular games. The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins will appear a season-high eight times each while the other 28 teams will appear at least once during the upcoming season.

NBC will switch their "Game of the Week" schedule to Sundays, an interesting and risky move if you ask me. NHL games will compete directly with NFL games on CBS and FOX and you know that's all but a losing battle for ratings. However, if there are enough true hockey fans in this country (and I still believe there are), they'll watch. One way NBC is trying to make this happen is using a flexible schedule where the most desirable matchups to be televised are chosen 13 days in advance. More good news is that all of their games will be available in high definition format and as many as four games per week will be shown regionally at the same time. Eight out of the nine weeks during the regular season will already feature the Rangers while the Penguins are expected to appear seven times. And yes, you won't miss a Stanley Cup championship clincher on NBC as they are scheduled to show Games 3 through 7.

After Canadian hockey fans wondered whether the 50-year-old Hockey Night In Canada tradition would end on CBC with the impending expiration of their last television contract, an extension through 2014 was finalized on March 26th. So it will be back next season for 85 games and you'll get to see more of Ron MacLean and Don Cherry every Saturday night. Plus, for the eighth straight season, there will be another "Hockey Day In Canada" on February 9, 2008. What I read that raised my interest was that viewers will have an opportunity to watch the CBC game of their choice live online regardless of what game is on television in their broadcast region. I cannot say it will be available for American viewers though due to broadcast rules. I remember last year wanting to watch a few hockey news events that were on TSN or Rogers Sportsnet and I was blacked out online because I don't live in Canada.

TSN will be Canada's other national television partner as they will cover what CBC doesn't have exclusively on Saturday nights. They'll have 70 games slated for the upcoming season with an increased emphasis on showing more of the six Canadian teams. You've seen CBC doing doubleheader Saturdays, so on other nights, you'll see TSN do the same on eight nights. Also like NBC, TSN will have a flexible schedule where they'll select the best matchups as the season progresses. So keep that TSN schedule handy so you can follow along in the event there are schedule changes.

Le Réseau des Sports (RDS) will continue to show Montreal Canadiens games in Canada as well other select games that are yet to be finalized from the master broadcast schedule. HDNet in the United States will have a Thursday and Saturday schedule and we won't know yet what games will be shown beyond the first two months of the season until a later date. While we wait for an announcement on the anticipated launch of the NHL Network in the United States, Canadian viewers are scheduled to see 40 live games.

For more on the NHL's national television coverage for the 2007-2008 season, you can check out these news hyperlinks.

National Hockey League official news release (August 15):
NHL releases 2007-2008 national television schedule

The Sports Network's (TSN) NHL page (August 15):
TSN releases NHL on TSN TV schedule

CBC Sports' hockey page (August 15):
CBC Sports announces Hockey Night In Canada schedule

NBC Sports' NHL page (August 15):
NHL on NBC flex schedule released

Versus' NHL page (August 15):
2007-2008 Versus schedule; Bill Patrick new studio host

Friday, August 3, 2007

Will NHL games return to ESPN in the future?

While I've heard just a tiny bit of rumblings about this in recent memory (including forum chatter), mainstream media hasn't really addressed it at length until this week.

According to a July 30th article in the Sports Business Journal, the National Hockey League and ESPN began preliminary talks last month about the possibility of games returning to the network as early as the 2008-2009 season.

Even though the league is two seasons removed from a devastating lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-2005 campaign, it should be interesting to see if the NHL is able to strengthen their fallen profile on the American sports landscape with a more lucrative television contract than what they previously agreed to. After the NHL and ESPN parted ways three years ago, the league signed a revenue-sharing broadcast television deal with NBC and a $70 million per season deal with new cable television partner Versus (formerly OLN). As it stands entering the upcoming 2007-2008 season, Comcast-owned Versus holds exclusive cable TV rights for NHL games through 2011. There would likely have to be a re-negotiation of that contract if ESPN re-enters as a part of any new deal.

At the same time, one factor that leads to this speculation of what the future holds for NHL games on American cable and broadcast TV would be that NBC is undecided if they will pick up their option on their rights to nationally televise games in 2008-2009. The Sports Business Journal mentions NBC's poor ratings for their two seasons in broadcasting NHL games. If NBC declines to exercise their option year and the NHL signs a new deal with ESPN, then games would back on ABC for over-the-air television.

The Globe and Mail in Toronto mentions that NBC has dropped Bill Clement and Ray Ferraro from their in-studio team. No word yet on who will replace them. Brett Hull left as the Dallas Stars hired him to be the team's advisor to their hockey operations department. Pierre McGuire's role on NBC will increase for the upcoming season. Will this shift in on-air personalities be a sign of things to come? Only time will tell.

The question is if the NHL returns to let's say ESPN 2, I wonder if that means Barry Melrose, John Buccigross, Bill Pidto, Darren Pang (perhaps part-time since he's the Phoenix Coyotes' color analyst), Brian Engblom, Steve Levy, Gary Thorne and Clement all return to cover the NHL there. Engblom is right now in studio at Versus as is the case with Clement. Thorne is doing play-by-play announcing for the Baltimore Orioles, but I'm confident that the chance to do hockey again won't stop him. I really hope if NHL games do return to ESPN 2, we see the re-birth of NHL 2Night, dependent on what I'm about to talk about next.

Regardless of whether or not NHL games are back on ESPN and ABC, there is hope that an American version of the NHL Network will indeed launch this fall. I'd rather see it available on a basic cable tier or I can just pay the extra fee per month. I have Cablevision as my provider and I don't even get NFL Network. But at least I have NBA TV.

I wonder if the NHL is able to pull a multi-network deal reminiscent of the NBA and NFL. There is no way it'll ever be in the same stratosphere as potentially lucrative as the NFL, but it would be more beneficial than as a liability, in my opinion. I'm happy with the progress Versus is making, but more exposure especially on cable is needed. ESPN is available on basic cable in 92 million homes while Versus has 71 million and on most cable systems have it buried on a premium sports tier. The NHL has the new CBA, now it's time for the league to deliver its promise to rebuild their standing in American sports.

This story and the developments from it should get interesting in the months to come.

Welcome to my NHL blog!

I have wrestled with the idea for quite a while now, but I decided to act on it. I know I'm not the only diehard hockey fan on the internet to start a blog. This is outside of professional journalists that cover the National Hockey League on a regular basis. I do post on a handful of hockey forums often, but I felt there was a need to do something more. So this might be the best way I can also express my true love for the sport on some sort of "hockey diary" of my own.

Without a doubt, I will be expanding on this blog and building it over time, both from the content to the look of the site. Expect plenty of my thoughts on what is going on around the National Hockey League and readers are always welcome to post their comments on anything I discuss.

So much to talk about and the upcoming season will be here before we know it! Training camp is a little more than a month away and I cannot wait! It's already late right now, so I better get some shuteye. More to come, so stay tuned!