Once upon a time, a new TV network needed sports programming and made a deal to broadcast NHL games.
The relationship benefited both parties. Over time the network dropped its gimmicky events, gaining major league sports and major credibility. It came to need the NHL much less than the NHL needed the network, and their relationship deteriorated.
That network — ESPN — parted ways with the NHL after the 2004-05 lockout, and as much as hockey fans long for ESPN’s mainstream cachet, that ship isn’t coming back. But the NHL’s retreat to the obscure Outdoor Life Network is finally looking better, thanks to a fortunate turn of events.
OLN became Versus, which became the NBC Sports Network not long after Comcast bought majority ownership of NBC. The deal between NBC Sports Network and the NHL, extended last year through 2020-21 and worth about $2 billion, has put 53 games on the air this season through Sunday, up from 36 at this point last season and on the way to 100 regular-season telecasts.
The network will show 10 games the final week of the season to highlight playoff races and will air West Coast games. Hallelujah to that, and to every playoff game being televised.
“We’re very excited. We are big believers in hockey. Have been for a while,” said Jonathan Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network.
“Our Nielsen reach is up over 78 million homes and we’re growing. As we continue to add more content and people start to find us I think people are going to start to ask for us.
“I think half the key here is a lot of people need to go in and say, ‘I’m a hockey fan,’ or ‘I’m a horse racing fan’ or ‘I’m a soccer fan and I want to make sure you have NBC Sports Network.’ Fans are going to help us grow this network.”
ESPN and ESPN2 each reach 99 million homes, so NBC Sports Network has a way to go to catch up. Those who can find it will see hockey featured in ways ESPN no longer had time for, including an NBC game the day after Thanksgiving, extensive pregame and postgame shows, and original programming such as NHL 36, which follows players for 36 hours before a game. NHL 36 was created and produced by Emmy Award winner Ross Greenburg, creator of HBO’s hugely popular “24/7" shows.
An NBC Sports Network spokesman said games are averaging 330,000 viewers, up 5% from last season, and telecasts in the network’s exclusive Wednesday and Sunday night time periods are averaging 455,000 viewers, up 11%. College hockey numbers have grown too.
“We’ve got more games, more viewers, better ratings. So we think it’s going pretty well,” Miller said.
Now, if only they can repeal the law that the bombastic Mike Milbury must be part of every telecast.
“It just seems that way,” Miller said, laughing. “He’s really talented. He’s got some great insights. … The one thing about our hockey talent is you have to love the game and you have to love to work because we’re going to put you to work.”
More work for them, more games for fans. A good deal, when you can find it.
Another kind of record in Motown
The Detroit Red Wings on Sunday became the third NHL team to win 20 consecutive home games, following the 1929-30 Boston Bruins and the 1975-76 Philadelphia Flyers. They can set the record Tuesday against the Dallas Stars at Joe Louis Arena.
It’s difficult to compare eras because games didn’t go to overtime or shootouts when the Flyers compiled their streak, and in the 1929-30 season teams played a 10-minute overtime period if they were tied after 60 minutes and a draw was declared if they were still tied. The Bruins won twice under that rule.
The Red Wings’ feat is formidable for its time because of their longer schedule and tougher travel. After a 4-1 loss to Calgary on Nov. 3, they won 12 consecutive home games in regulation; they’ve also won in a shootout three times, in overtime once and in regulation four times. Not easy, and worth a salute.
Dustin Penner scores points … off the ice
Kings winger Dustin Penner showed class when he put his struggles aside to help raise more than $3,000 for the team’s charity.
Playing off the Jan. 7 incident when he sat down to eat his wife’s “delicious” pancakes and suffered debilitating back spasms, Penner joined 75 fans for breakfast Monday at the IHOP at Manchester Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard. He signed autographs and posed for pictures while wearing flip-flops and a Kings jersey — perhaps his last appearance in a Kings jersey for a while.
Penner, who has only five goals and 13 points in 43 games, was a healthy scratch the last two games. He and Jarret Stoll (lower-body injury) were replaced by Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, who scored their first NHL goals in the Kings’ 4-2 victory Sunday at Dallas.
The change revived the gifted Mike Richards, who was miscast on a “stopper” line with Stoll and Penner. The Kings can only hope someone will value Penner’s past 20-goal seasons over his recent stumbles and acquire him before the Feb. 27 trading deadline.