Puck Daddy - NHL

Since coming to the U.S. last year, the NHL Network has been cleared by cable companies at a rapid rate throughout the country, with carriage on Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox Communications, DirecTV, Dish Network and Time Warner Cable.

It has not, however, been carried on Verizon FiOS, the all-digital fiber optic service provider that's made inroads in areas like New York, Washington, DC and many parts of Texas. Which has seriously deprived dedicated puckheads of nightly highlights, classic games and a summer in which they completely mailed it in.

Here in Virginia, FiOS gives us the Nigerian Television Authority channel, whatever the hell the Smile of a Child channel is, 26 Spanish language channels and two all-disco music channels ... but we don't have the NHL Network and we've never had NHL Center Ice. Despite, you know, living within an hour of a hockey arena called the "Verizon Center."

I spoke with FiOS spokesperson Heather Wilner recently to see if hockey fans would be in the hearts and minds of the Verizon corporation for the upcoming season, and if FiOS would be adding the NHL Network. 

"We haven't made any announcements yet. We said that we hope to offer it. Aside from that, we haven't discussed it any further," said Wilner, a very pleasant person suffering through the verbal handcuffing mandated by her golden parachute-wearing overlords. "I do understand that people want this particular network. We do offer other sports programming for our customers, and are offering more everyday."

Hockey fans throughout the U.S. don't want "other sports programming"; they want FiOS to offer the damn NHL Network, just like it offers the NFL Network and that movie soundtrack music video channel.

And here's the good news for FiOS subscribers like yours truly: An NHL source told me that the League is in fact in talks with Verizon FiOS, with the hope that the NHL Network will be offered for this season. And here I thought the highlight of the FiOS sports tier would continue to be the World Fishing Network ... 

So the NHL Network could be coming soon. NHL Center Ice on FiOS? That's another, painfully frustrating but ultimately enlightening story.

NHL Center Ice is an out-of-market sports package that, if you haven't experienced it, has changed the way we watch hockey in the U.S. You'll see most games every night of the season, with coverage provided by local broadcasters. It's a freedom hockey fans have never previously experienced; one season with the service, and you feel like skating up to Bristol to tell ESPN where it can stick its saturation basketball coverage.

Center Ice is found on both DirecTV and Dish Network. It's distributed to cable companies through iN DEMAND, a pay-per-view provider owned by Comcast, Cox Communications, and Time Warner Entertainment. Notice a name missing from this roll call: Verizon. And that's a major issue with getting iN DEMAND on FiOS.

"What you really want to do is give as much choice as you can, but you also don't want to bolster the competition," said Anthony Crupi of Media Week.

There is no relationship between FiOS and iN DEMAND. "iN DEMAND isn't on FiOS. We don't provide our service to them. They're not our client," said Ellen Cooper, head of PR for iN DEMAND.

But why not? Here's where things we a little inside-baseball. Because they offer Internet and phone service along with television, FiOS isn't consider a traditional "cable company" by iN DEMAND.

"FiOS goes out of its way, in its marketing, to make a distinction between themselves and the cable companies by highlighting their advanced services," said Crupi.

Cooper of iN DEMAND said, "We only service the cable system. In our industry, as far as the nomenclature, [FiOS is] not considered a traditional cable system. But the cable systems now provide phone service to customers. It's all becoming a lot more complex."

Indeed. Here's how Center Ice gets carried by iN DEMAND: The NHL cuts a deal with the pay-per-view provider so they don't have to deal directly with each cable system. iN DEMAND then becomes an aggregator of programming for cable industry.

When you see Center Ice on a satellite television provider, it's because the NHL has cut a deal directly with those companies. "If you're not a cable system, i.e. Verizon or Dish Network or Direct TV, you can deal directly with the leagues," said Mark Boccardi, VP of programming for iN DEMAND. "My understanding was that the Leagues dealt directly with FiOS."

According to everyone I've spoken to for this piece, here's the bottom line: It's looking good for the NHL Network on Verizon FiOS television. But if NHL Center Ice ever comes to FiOS, it will have to be an agreement between the League and Verizon, because iN DEMAND will most likely not be offered on FiOS.

"You're going to have former cable customers who decide to make the change to FiOS and think they'll still get all the same programming, when in fact there's programming we have that's exclusive to cable," said Boccardi of iN DEMAND.

I'm a Verizon FiOS subscriber, but not exactly by choice. The telecommunications company purchased the right to exclusively provide its services to the planned community in which I live. Whether we want to or not, we're paying for FiOS as part of our homeowners association fees. It's your typical shortsighted corporate gluttony in suburban development; the kind of mindset that lends itself to moving the headstones but not the bodies.

I like FiOS. The Internet service allows me to bring you our particular brand of whimsy on this blog each day. And outside of one embarrassing case in which someone else's pay-per-view charges were showing up on my bill, the cable television's been pretty good, too. (Seriously, who watches that much porn at one in the afternoon? And at those prices?)

But it's not enough that they add the NHL Network this season. I don't feel as though my interests as a hockey fan are being served without Center Ice. Since I'm paying for FiOS anyway, I shall keep its service (and its fine-looking, though sadly limited, HD channels). But since I want Center Ice, I'm thinking about subscribing to DirecTV, hooking it up to one television in my home, getting the barebones package, and then signing up for the NHL out-of-market PPV. If FiOS fails to add the NHL Network this season, I'll upgrade and get it on the dish.

Economically irresponsible? A tad obsessive? Completely insane?

Such is the life of a hockey fan in a FiOS world.

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