Puck Push

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The National Hockey League is in Atlanta’s Phillips Arena this weekend for its All-Star festivities. Versus’ on-air talent and crew will bring viewers the action from the varied events from the Dodge/NHL SuperSkills competition Saturday night at 7 p.m. The 56th annual All-Star game faces off Sunday January 27at 6 p.m.

Dare I say, the puck sport has some momentum.

After all, hockey has always been the game with TV potential. The theory was that increased youth participation would graduate more viewers, as they turned into hard-to-reach 18-to-34-year-olds. An extremely fast game with a small spheroid at the center of the players’ attention, it’s certainly not the easiest sport to follow on the small screen. Remember Fox and its glowing puck? However, the high-definition format truly brings this game into sharper focus.

Then, there was that little work stoppage that iced the 2004-05 season. ESPN/ESPN2/ABC passed on a re-entry at that time. That opened the door for NBC to step onto the ice through a revenue-sharing agreement and a Comcast-owned service, then known as Outdoor Life Network, to make its first major play in the stick and ball arena, via a three-year $217.5 million pact.  

Over the first two seasons, ratings at OLN, which became Versus, languished, and NBC didn’t score very well with a regionalized approach to the regular season or its primetime Stanley Cup Finals coverage.

Well, the puck seems to be turning with the Nielsens.

Versus, which checked some early hockey carriage resistance when it first gained NHL rights to see its subscriber count expand from 60 million homes then to 74 million homes today, averaged a 0.3 household rating and 261,760 viewers through its first 29 games, respective increases of 50% and 34% from the same stage of the 2006-07 campaign.

During its final season of coverage in 2003-04, ESPN2 averaged 209,000 viewers in far more homes than Versus. It should be pointed out, though, that Versus benefits from exclusivity in the markets of the competing teams.

Taking a page from the NFL, NBC has gone to a flex scheduling selection process for its Sunday afternoon regular-season presentations this year. The Peacock also scored big on New Year’s Day, when the outdoor Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium (the home of the NFL Buffalo Bills) between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabers drew more than 72,000 fans, a 2.2 national rating and 3.8 million viewers. That was the most for an NHL regular-season game since Fox telecast Wayne Gretzky’s farewell contest on April 18, 1999.

Not surprisingly, the NHL is talking more outdoor games, with Versus looking to get involved in the years ahead: Last week, it picked up a three-year option to retain cable-exclusivity through the 2011 season.

Whether, the NHL and Versus allow ESPN2 to rejoin them on the ice (do you think Versus wouldn’t like to fortify its portfolio of college football or hoops via an exchange with the Bristol behemoth), or if NBC exercises its one-year option following this season, remains to be seen.

The point: there’s growing interest in the NHL.

But before I get too carried away, like Scott Niedermayer on a rush from the blue line, here’s some perspective. Hockey is not going to challenge football, baseball, basketball and NASCAR any time soon. Indeed, it can be argued that soccer – through all its network windows and iterations and especially if you factor in the Latino audience – is more popular.

And this weekend’s showcase in Atlanta is missing the sport’s leading face, the Penguins Sidney Crosby to an ankle injury. Through familial obligations or injuries, such notables as New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur, Detroit center Henrik Zetterberg, Dallas defenseman Sergei Zubov and Colorado center Paul Stastny also will be counted as All-Star absentees.

All the same, I’m tuning in. With checking all but verboten, the All-Star game tends to be a goaltenders’ nightmare, which makes for good highlights

And speaking of such, the “Human Highlight Film” will be in the house Saturday night. Hoops Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, the former Atlanta Hawk and NBA slam dunk legend, is one of the four judges for the breakaway challenge event at the skills competition.

They will not only be looking at whether Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta’s forward of choice, Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis, Washington’s Alex Ovenchkin, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf, and Minnesota’s Marian Gaborik score, but how stylishly they put the biscuit in the basket.