Puck Daddy - NHL

The DirecTV/Versus dispute is hours away from depriving millions of hockey fans of two opening night games: The Washington Capitals at the Boston Bruins, and the San Jose Sharks against the Colorado Avalanche on Joe Sakic(notes) Night.

We'd like to say things are progressing. They aren't, as of this morning. We'd like to report that a deal is imminent thanks to the NHL's call to action. It isn't, but that isn't to say it can't happen before the puck drops.

It's looking bleak, and we're not surprised to read about Avs fans that are exploring any means necessary to watch night's game. We're sure restaurants in all four cities will see upticks in bar flies tonight.

The latest, via some conversations this morning:

• DirecTV spokesman Darris Gringeri offered a rather stunning proposal in an interview with Adrian Dater of the Denver Post last week:

"If we don't have a deal with Versus by the time hockey season starts, DirecTV would certainly be open to putting these games up for our customers while we continue to negotiate."

According to Versus, this is total lip-service: There hasn't been a formal invitation from DirecTV to place Versus programming back on the service on a temporary basis. "They haven't asked us to air the games," said a network source. "They had the chance to leave us up. If they put the game up today, take it down tonight, what's the next day? We want a long-term deal."

(UPDATE: DirecTV statement added after the jump.)

• As for the rate increases DirecTV says are at the heart of this dispute, there is a "zero total dollar increase" on the table from Versus. In other words, if subscriptions continue to grow, the amount of money DirecTV will pay Versus will not. According to the network, this proposal was presented in the negotiation several days ago and DirecTV hasn't responded to it -- despite continuing to claim in recent media reports that Versus is trying to "jack up our rates."

• What baffles us about this negotiation are DirecTV's disparaging public remarks about Versus over the last month.

Look, the buck-hunting/fishing/cage-fighting/occasional hockey channel isn't perfect; puckheads know this better than anyone. But DirecTV began this stalemate by calling Versus a channel of infomercials, and four weeks later it's quoting ratings from August -- no hockey, no college football, no Tour de France August -- in an effort to paint the network as a non-vital entity on its service.

Which brings us back to the baffling part: Why is DirecTV slandering a network that it's going to ask its subscribers to pay more for should it win the negotiation? "Hey, it's all Sham-wow ads and garbage ratings ... but would you like to upgrade to our next sports tier to receive it?"

We've said before that DirecTV has every right, in a free market, to place Versus on whatever payment tier it chooses to. But this tactic seems a bit confusing to that end.

From DirecTV, a statement on the talks:

DIRECTV customers still have access to 96% of the regular season NHL games even without Versus.  The other 4% are exclusive to Versus and we understand that fans are frustrated with not being able to see those games.  From the feedback we've received, we also know that hockey fans are not really interested in the back and forth between the two companies so we are open to putting up some of these games for our customers while we continue to negotiate. But Versus would have to allow us to do that.

When this all started at the end of August, DIRECTV did offer to keep Versus up under the old deal while we continued to negotiate, but they declined.  In fact, Versus sent us a letter stating that if we didn't agree to the terms they had on the table at the time, that we had no choice but to take it down.  Our hands were tied. 

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of DirecTV's public posturing and Versus's public victimization. Whatever the real story is, we're stuck in an acrimonious corporate dispute that seems to get nastier as the weeks wear on.

Won't life be easier for the NHL on television when Comcast owns everything? (Thanks to Puck Buddy Mike L.)

At least there's good news from the Center Ice front. Via inDemand:

NEW YORK, Sept. 30 2009 – NHL Center Ice out-of-market subscription package of professional hockey games skates into the new season with the longest-ever free preview, from Oct. 1 until Oct 24, 2009, announced package distributor iN DEMAND Networks.  Digital cable customers will have free access to the package which gives fans who live away from their favorite team an opportunity to follow the games, and superfans a way to follow the whole league.  The package provides up to 40 live out-of-market games per week across 14 channels, and includes a wealth of enhancements to enrich the viewing experience.  Customers who order by October 31 will save with the early bird price of only four installments of $40.95 each.

Throughout the regular season, NHL Center Ice provides fans the opportunity to watch over 1,000 live NHL games, plus select games from the first two rounds of Stanley Cup Playoff competition, as in past seasons.  More information about NHL Center Ice is available at http://www.gethockey.com/. Residential customers as well as commercial establishments can order by calling 1-888-SPORTS-iN or their local cable provider. Blackout and other restrictions apply.

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