Thirteen days and counting until the first puck is dropped, yet the NHL still lacks a national cable television contract. Posturing has replaced negotiations.
The NHL does not want to continue to place the Stanley Cup final on SportsChannel America because its maximum audience is 15 million homes. It much prefers ESPN, with access to four times that many.
For several weeks the league has discussed with ESPN its return to the sport it abandoned four years ago. ESPN wants to pay only $4 million for games every Friday beginning in mid-January, then share postseason with SportsChannel before exclusively televising the championship series, which would be juggled around four nights of baseball coverage. New Jersey Devils announcer Gary Thorne reportedly is set to become ESPN's hockey play-by-play voice.
As bad as the financial part of the proposal is, that supposedly is not the stickiest point. This involves ESPN's insistence on ending blackouts, which would cut into local TV revenue, a dangerous precedent.
As a result, the deal has not been wrapped up, despite the fact each side needs the other. "We're still negotiating. We want it to work economically," says Mike Soltys of ESPN.
NHL commissioner John Ziegler has had a higher priority in recent days involving the players' union, and when asked about TV he sounded indifferent to the approaching deadline. This led Wayne Gretzky to state that the NHL needs to be seen on ESPN.
SportsChannel's Dan Martinsen said his network is prepared to return with last season's schedule of some 150 telecasts. But after paying $17.5 million for each of the last three years, SportsChannel reportedly is offering only $3 million for regular
season and split postseason rights.