NHL Network on Deck for Cable

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After three years of distribution in Canada, the National Hockey League is gearing up for a potential 2004 launch of its 24-hour sports network in the United States.

Following on the heels of national launches by the National Basketball Association’s NBA TV and the National Football League’s NFL Network, the NHL Network could debut stateside late in 2004, after the pro-hockey league’s current national distribution deals with ESPN and ABC Sports expire at the end of the 2003-04 season.

"Our intent is to bring it down to the U.S. as soon as possible as we continue to look at our overall television strategy," league executive vice president and chief operating officer Jon Litner said. "It’s a priority for us, and it’s an opportunity to take what’s already working in Canada and migrate it down to the U.S."

He said the league has been in discussions with ESPN and ABC parent The Walt Disney Co. on renewal of its current five-year, $600 million deal.

Litner wouldn’t rule out providing live games on the network, if and when it’s launched, but he said the service would initially take the form of its Canadian predecessor, which offers news, highlights, player profiles, training tips, the latest equipment advances and amateur hockey coverage.

A major roadblock for the network could be the potential labor dispute between NHL players and owners, which could lead to a work stoppage at the end of this season.

Another hurdle the network would have to clear is gaining distribution within a cable environment that has not been very open to launching league-owned services. NBA TV has a handful of cable affiliate deals, while the NFL Network is currently only carried by satellite provider DirecTV Inc.

"We’re obviously looking at the marketplace and trying to find out where the opportunities are," Litner said. "We’re keeping abreast of the marketplace and making sure we’re as well-positioned and informed as we can be."

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