If ever there was a time for the National Hockey League to establish itself as more than a niche sport, now may be the time.
On Saturday, the NHL returns to network television, with NBC regionally televising three games. Then, beginning Feb. 10, NBC will be showcasing Olympic hockey on its sister cable networks during the Winter Games at Turin, Italy.
Sam Flood, the network's coordinating producer of hockey, said Wednesday during a conference call that he is looking forward to showing off the NHL in a new way.
"Clearly, the league has done a great job in relaunching with a much better product, with a game on the ice that is fun to watch," Flood said. "We've got to get that home to the living room so that people can see it on their TV sets."
The coverage will include having players wear microphones, the introduction of a "goalie cam," and having reporters "inside the glass" with access to players and coaches. That, Flood said, should satisfy hard-core NHL fans as well as bring new fans to the sport.
NBC also will have a studio show featuring Bill Clement, formerly of ESPN who now hosts the OLN telecasts, and former King Ray Ferraro. They will have a guest analyst each week, and up first is former New York Ranger Mark Messier. The studio show will be done at NBC headquarters at New York's Rockefeller Center.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in a separate interview Wednesday, declined to go as far as calling it a "crossroads" for the league but said, "It's a good opportunity for the league to continue progress in our relaunch."
After the NHL's 310-day lockout ended last summer, a new TV deal was negotiated. Since then, the only nationally televised games have been on OLN, formerly the Outdoor Life Network, on Mondays and Tuesdays. The telecasts have averaged a barely measurable 0.2 rating nationally.
In Los Angeles, it has been even worse. The telecasts have failed to get any kind of a rating at all. Generally, only about 4,000 of the market's 16.5 million potential viewers have tuned into an NHL telecast on OLN.
"This is a year in transition," Bettman acknowledged. "I think they've done an incredible job in the short time they had to get started."
OLN and the NHL reached a two-year, $135-million agreement in August, not long before the current season started. The league promised OLN an exclusive night -- Mondays -- in which no other hockey games can be played, and a light schedule on Tuesdays. But because the season was close to starting -- it opened Oct. 5 -- those perks got put on hold for one season to straighten out scheduling problems.
It was in May 2004 that NBC and the NHL reached a two-year deal that involves only profit sharing and no rights fee.
That might not a good thing for NHL owners, but NBC televising the NHL is a big plus for OLN, which now will have a major network promoting its hockey telecasts, or at least mentioning them.
Both OLN and the league are hoping the NBC telecasts will make casual NHL viewers more inclined to make the effort to find where OLN is on their cable and satellite receivers.
"I expect a lot of cross-promotion," Bettman said.
NBC's main game Saturday, going to 51.6% of the country, will be the New York Rangers at Detroit. The announcers for it will be Mike "Doc" Emrick and John Davidson, who also handle OLN games.
The game to be shown in Los Angeles -- and 34.5% of the country -- at 11 a.m. will be the Colorado Avalanche versus the Philadelphia Flyers, with Dave Strader and the Mighty Ducks' Brian Hayward handling the announcing duties. Joe Micheletti will be what NBC is calling the "inside-the-glass" reporter.
A third NBC game will feature the Dallas Stars versus the Boston Bruins. Of note here is that Cammi Granato will be the inside-the-glass reporter. Granato, a former captain for the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team and sister of former NHL player Tony Granato, served as the Kings' radio commentator during the 1998-99 season, working alongside Nick Nickson.
NBC will televise regular-season NHL games on four successive Saturdays, then after a break that includes the weeks that the Olympics take place, returns for two more Saturdays, April 8 and April 15.
The main NBC game each Saturday will be shown in high definition, which could be another boon for the NHL because that should make it easier for viewers to follow the puck.
NBC's Flood showed on Wednesday's conference call that he is passionate about hockey. He was the captain of his hockey team at Williams College in Massachusetts and his father was a hockey coach.
"We're going to showcase the game and let everyone know why people are so passionate about hockey," said Flood, who for the last five years has produced NBC's NASCAR coverage. "The philosophy in our coverage will be what you see in the Olympics. We're telling stories, and storytelling makes you care about people. We're going to build stars and make you care about the stars."
Bettman made it clear he can't help but be hopeful.
"My sense is that the people who will participate in NBC's coverage have a tremendous amount of energy and passion about the game," he said.