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Ice Capades

Frozen out of a major television contract in 2005, the National Hockey League has reluctantly planted its flag on the internet. It could be the best thing to happen to the sport since the Zamboni.

Author Bryant Urstadt Illustration Emiliano Ponzi

FOUR YEARS AGO, the National Hockey League more or less dropped off the face of national television, cast into a sports broadcasting wilderness where even the world’s-strongest-man contest feared to go—which is to say, a place without ESPN or even ESPN2. Besides depriving hockey fans of the nightly stylings of ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose, whose egregious mullet was revered enough to spark a series of Bud Light ads, the NHL’s failure to negotiate a full-time broadcast contract with the network cost it a lot of money and a lot of air time. NBC, in the meantime, has been broadcasting games, but just a handful and paying zero for the privilege. Consequently, the NHL is a distant sixth (if you count NASCAR and golf) to the other major sports on the TV landscape—deep within a black hole from which it may never return.

It turns out this may not be such a bad thing. Spurned by national television, the NHL, with a surprisingly stable base of fans rabid enough to seek out games no matter what it takes—whether through pirated digital streams or legit NHL website offerings—has built a significant online presence, and one that may give it advantages as the major sports continue to shed their television-based past and present, and move toward an all-broadband future.

It’s not that the NHL is a small or insignificant league. Attendance for hockey games, in fact, is about the same as it is for NBA games, and hockey’s fans are famously loyal. As an old saw in Boston goes, “There may be only 17,000 Bruins fans, but they come to every single game.”

Of course, there are more than 17,000 Bruins fans, but you get the point. With competition from more dominant sports like baseball, NASCAR, football and basketball (and the college versions of the latter two), there just isn’t room for an extra sport on the major airwaves— though most markets with pro hockey teams have a local cable channel willing to air games.

Such adversity has forced pro hockey teams and the league down some unfamiliar paths. Take Los Angeles, a city whose financially strapped newspapers stopped sending beat writers to L.A. Kings road games around the same time the NHL lost its ESPN contract. This fall, the team solved the problem by hiring Los Angeles Daily News writer Rich Hammond to be its full-time blogger. He now does just about the same thing he did at the LADN but gets his checks from the team instead of a publisher. The result: Though whatever wall may have existed between writer and subject has basically been dismantled, Kings fans now get coverage by the same writer they’ve been reading for almost a decade.

The Washington Capitals have long been at the forefront of the NHL’s digital experiment, having been among the first teams to offer bloggers permanent seats at games. This actually isn’t too surprising, given that the team is owned by Ted Leonsis, who spent the better (and certainly most profitable) part of his career in various positions at AOL during the internet giant’s salad days.

As Leonsis candidly told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s program Hockey Night in Canada, the wood stove around which the Canadian hockey world gathers, “Hockey’s not going to make it big on television. We’ve tried for twenty years. We have to be the most new-media savvy league and go where the puck is going to be. I don’t think it’s anything to fear. I think it’s a business and social imperative that we have to embrace.”

The Islanders, also suffering in a world of reduced print space, have gone a step further. Next to the free seats offered to salaried mainstream media in the press box, the team installed a “Blog Box,” where independent bloggers have covered the games with the same level of access as their traditional-media brethren since 2007. As many as 175 bloggers applied for spots in the box last year, and the team chose 13. Now, instead of the usual coterie of frustrated novelists and ink-stained eggheads, the people covering the Islanders include such everymen as an air conditioning service tech and an electrician. On opening day, at least one of the bloggers showed up for work in regular fan attire: an Islanders jersey.

Like other leagues, the NHL has embraced every kind of social networking site, from MySpace to Facebook, and keeps a full-time social media staffer at its New York headquarters. This August, the Tampa Bay Lightning made history in fewer than 140 characters by becoming the first professional team in any major sport to announce a trade by means of a tweet.

The NHL streams games, too, and for $20 a month, or $159 a year, a fan can purchase games and have them fed to a computer via the league’s GameCenter Live. Some games, however, are blacked out locally because of deals with cable companies. This may have dissuaded some from dumping their local cable service, but the league is obviously still mindful of alienating whatever television presence remains (local teams can often still be seen on local cable channels). The NHL’s senior vice president of digital media, Perry Cooper, notes that about half the fan base roots for teams outside their home market, which is a boon to the internet operation. The NHL doesn’t release GameCenter subscriber numbers, but Cooper says it’s seen about a 70 percent growth in subscribers year over year.

The NHL also makes the games available on other sites immediately after they’ve aired in home markets.

Go to Hulu, the high-quality video hub started last year by Fox and NBC, and you’ll find full-length recent NHL games archived in a free feed. The NHL has struck similar deals with Yahoo! and iTunes, and in the process it created a sort of ad hoc DVR for its fans.

There are other, less legitimate formats as well. Some frustrated (or just cheap) NHL fans have been pirating streams from cable and throwing them up on the web. NHL officials say that they “go after” such evildoers, but there haven’t been any high-profile prosecutions—which could indicate a sophisticated view of how brand marketing works. Like Grateful Dead bootlegs, pirated NHL streams bolster other sources of income for the league—namely, tickets and merchandise—while building an audience for a league that will be well positioned to play on whatever new, more level, playing field emerges over the next few seasons.

Can the NHL ever imagine itself as a totally digital sport? “Right now, people need those sixty-inch HD games, and cable can give those to them,” says Cooper, somewhat diplomatically. “Only time will tell what happens next.”

BRYANT URSTADT also plays hockey without major broadcast coverage—in a men’s league in Queens, New York.

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