Puck Daddy - NHL

VANCOUVER – From horse-racing conflicts to shuttering the big screen at Mellon Arena, NBC has given hockey fans as much anxiety and anger as watching Jay Leno sit in Conan's chair.

The latest affront to puckheads: The U.S. vs. Canada men's preliminary-round showdown Feb. 21 won't be shown on NBC, but on cable's MSNBC at 7 p.m. EST. Instead, the Peacock will bring fans an exhilarating night of ice dancing, women's speedskating, men's freestyle skiing and men's giant slalom – rather than what amounts to an NHL all-star game on an international stage.

To the surprise of no one, NBC's getting torched for this: Outspoken player agent Allan Walsh tweeted that it was "disgraceful, and Chicago Now called it inexcusable:

How can the NHL cancel their all star game and postpone their season for two weeks to accommodate the Olympics without getting any major network attention during the Winter Olympiad?

This is just another case of why the NHL will never be as popular as its fan base either believes it is or wants it to be.  When the pinnacle of the sport calls on the best of the best of your league, you have to get these games on national television.  The worst part of the whole deal is the league (NHL) has the contract with the television network already and still cannot get the best hockey competition in the world on the tube.

The notion that the NHL would shutter its season for the Games and that its broadcast rights holder wouldn't then put the NHL-centric U.S. vs. Canada on its primary network is baffling.

So we reached out to NBC for comment and context, and found out who gets the blame for this malarkey: American women.

According to the network, there are three major sporting events that have more female viewers than male viewers: the Kentucky Derby, the Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics. Turning three hours of prime-time coverage on the East Coast over to a hockey game isn't exactly catnip to those casual female viewers, despite Sidney Crosby's(notes) pouty lips.

Ice dancing, like figure skating, is a demographic draw; it's the hook for a night of coverage that appeals to a broader audience than hockey does. But it's not the only reason USA/Canada was shifted to the home of Keith Olbermann's foaming mouth.

In essence, committing to a hockey game is committing to a three-hour programming block that can't be interrupted. Imagine the outrage if NBC cut away during the second period of USA/Canada because someone was taking a historic bobsled run. Ice dancing allows for drop-ins at other events, which is another reason NBC believes it's the best option in East Coast prime time.

Now, aside from the indignation of having hockey shuffled off to cable, there's been some concern from hockey fans about the quality of that coverage: namely, that MSNBC may not have the HD hockey coverage that NBC would have had.

MSNBC's HD station was rolled out last summer, and one of the last major holdouts finally came around this week: Verizon FiOS, which added the network to its digital HD tier. Chances are the U.S./Canada tilt will be in HD in your area, if you have digital cable or satellite with an HD package.

NBC told us with pride that it's offering an enormous amount of hockey on its networks; a full schedule of games is here, and the majority of them are on cable – although the Russia/Czech game scheduled before Canada/USA will be on NBC that afternoon on the East Coast.

The bronze-medal game for men's hockey is scheduled for 10 p.m. EST on Saturday, Feb. 27, on MSNBC, with the gold-medal game on NBC the following day. (Keep in mind NBC told us there is some flexibility in moving games from network to network if there's a reason to – such as, perhaps, Team USA playing for the bronze.)

If you're interested in watching games on the Web, NBC is streaming hockey while dropping the hammer on sites that stream live TV.

So there's the NBC side of the story, which we felt was important to bring you. It's not as if they aren't showing the game at all, or as if it's been sent off to an obscure corner of the cable box. They have their reasons for the decision, and we, as hockey fans, have our reasons for disagreeing with their decision.

It's hard to embrace NBC as a friend to puckheads when the biggest hockey event of the season (at least until the medal round) isn't deemed important enough for prime time.

From a demographic, sponsorship and ratings perspective, NBC has every reason not to put the game on its broadcast network. But in the context of other culture clashes with hockey fans, NBC's decision damages its relationship with that audience.

Do you go to NBCSports.com for hockey coverage? Because they're really increasing it soon in a bloggy sort of way. Yet when the parent company doesn't promote the game in a moment like this, it's hard to separate that from other, more positive endeavors to cover the hockey for fans who feel insulted.

But the Winter Classic is lovely every year. On that, we can agree.

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