What We Learned: The truth about ESPN's pursuit of NHL TV rights

Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend's events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

A Mediaweek report came out this weekend claiming that ESPN is prepared to launch a large-scale bid for the NHL's TV rights, in the near future.

There are two schools of thought on the matter.

The first, likely to come from loyalists and alarmists alike, is that The Worldwide Leader in Sports wants to take on the league's TV deal almost cynically. That even if it had the NHL Game of the Week or brought back NHL 2 Night, it would do so in such a way that it continued to relegate the league to the third- or fourth-rate status it currently does. That it would continue to laugh up its sleeves at us poor, stupid hockey fans that don't like a real sport.

That notion is at once understandable and, of course, incredibly stupid.

ESPN is a television network run by people who more or less decide the national sports conversation. If it were to pick up the rights to the NHL, it would be doing so having invested what is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars, particularly if there's a bidding war between it and Versus.

Not that the timidity isn't understandable. ESPN dropped the NHL's rights at a time when they could be had for a relative song, badmouthing it and denigrating it every step of the way even before the lockout. As a result, Gary Bettman basically went to Versus hat in hand and took whatever deal they offered him. But hockey fans have a long memory, and good businessmen do not.

It would be remarkably foolish for both ESPN and the NHL to sit around and remember what the hell was going on in 2005. The League is far, far different now than it was in those days. So too is the network.

(Coming Up: The Fire Ron Wilson movement; Khabibulin's brilliant save; Blue Jacket takes a cannon to the body twice; Dustin Byfuglien(notes) talks Thrashers attendance; Ference stands up to Inglorious; Oshie is a beast; Craig Anderson(notes) injury update; no one listens to Langenbrunner; Datsyuk gets robbed; Dan Boyle(notes) talks Tampa Bay poison; Toews is golden; and why you should be embarrassed for the Kings because of the media that covers them.)

It's not that Bettman will completely ignore the treatment the League received in the dying days of its old rights contract, but he's not going to let that get in the way of a potentially lucrative deal.

He serves at the pleasure of the 30 owners and, whatever you may personally think of the way he's handled things, he's been a pitbull for them. What they've wanted, he's gotten. More teams in the 1990s meant more expansion fees, a salary cap meant guaranteed profits, and a new TV deal will almost certainly mean far bigger revenues than the franchises receives under the current deal. The various decisions he's made can be seen a lot of ways, but "bad for business" sure as hell isn't one of 'em.

And that brings us to the second school of thought on the potential ESPN deal: the pragmatic one.

Even if it is ESPN hedging its bets on either an NBA or NFL work stoppage, or both, next winter, it behooves the network to promote something it just laid out a couple Kovalchuk contracts' worth of money. Hell, it probably paid next to nothing for the Major League Soccer deal, and there's MLS Game of the Week every Wednesday, and usually a game or two on the weekends as well.

But more than that, ESPN is attuned to the pulse of the sports world, for obvious reasons. It got the MLS contract as soccer really started to get big, and has since gotten Premier League, La Liga, UEFA and World Cup contracts, and done well at presenting all of them. Why, it's almost as though the network saw a sport growing in popularity and then did its best to promote the sport because it had a financial interest in doing so! What a business decision.

Perhaps people don't remember when ESPN first had the NHL broadcast rights. It showed the 2004 World Cup of Hockey when it clearly didn't have to. It showed regular hockey programming throughout the week. Hell, it showed Pro Beach Hockey. So let's not act like ESPN didn't have a vested interest in hockey's success until the lockout torpedoed everything.

This is always going to be a divisive issue, but if the only real choices are between ESPN and Versus, the NHL is choosing between loyalty and continued obscurity, or openness to new ideas and greater exposure to a sports audience that will continue to think that "hoc-key?" joke is funny until ESPN tells them not to.

In the end, Bettman is going to choose what's best for the league. What you think that means to him is another story entirely.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Dan Sexton(notes), Matt Beleskey(notes) and Joffrey Lupul(notes) are all back and participating in on-ice workouts. That's good news for the Ducks, who... wait, none of those guys are defensemen? Hell.

Atlanta Thrashers: Gotta love Big Buff, talkin' Thrashers attendance: "It's been nice and quiet. Been liking the peace. It's the way it is around here. We'll get the ship back in here."

Boston Bruins: Great fight outta Andrew Ference(notes), who was giving up 35 pounds and four inches to David Backes(notes), himself a mean hombre.

For those that didn't see this Bruins/Blues game, you missed a good one.

Buffalo Sabres: Hey look, all the Sabres needed to get their act together was a game against the Leafs! If they can get another 40 or so games against them and the Oil this season, I'd say they could sneak into the playoffs after all.

Calgary Flames: This just in -- Hockey players believe you should keep your head up so you don't get killed by a 6-foot-4 guy from a prairie province. I don't know why we have to discuss this ad nauseum.

Carolina Hurricanes: On Friday, the Hurricanes played in Florida and gave up 50(!) shots to the Panthers. On Saturday, the Hurricanes played in Carolina and gave up 20. Home ice advantage seems to play a moderate role in these games.

Chicago Blackhawks: Viktor Stalberg's(notes) shootout winner helped the Blackhawks overcome a spirited performance from the Thrashers on Saturday, and spawned what had to be the 1,000,000th headline involving a pun on his first name.

Colorado Avalanche: Craig Anderson will be back from his injury in warm-ups in a week or two, and until then, you're just going to have to stomach Peter Budaj(notes) a bit longer.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Derek Dorsett(notes) played on Saturday night after sitting out practice for maintenance on Friday. Why? He took three hard shots from a puck on Thursday, including one from Rick Nash(notes) that caught him above the eye while he was sitting on the bench, and this BOMB from Dustin Byfuglien that hit him in the chest.

He didn't pick up a blocked shot on Saturday, but you can't really blame him.

Dallas Stars: The Stars got creamed by Colorado on Saturday, 5-0. Whether that's got anything to do with it being their third game in four nights is up to you.

Detroit Red Wings: Brad Stuart(notes) on what makes him so good for the Red Wings: "It's going to sound odd, but I'm more comfortable with my sticks now. It makes a difference when you have confidence in your tools." Detroit coaches figured out he was using a too stiff a flex, that was wrong-handed, and a junior stick when he was with Calgary, Boston and San Jose. And that's made all the difference.

Edmonton Oilers: An okay save by Nikolai Khabibulin(notes), I'd say.

'Course a better goalie would've gloved it for a draw, but WHATEVER I guess.

Florida Panthers: Earlier I mentioned the Panthers threw 50 shots on goal against Carolina Friday. The game before, they put up 55 in a loss to the Thrashers. First time since the '94 Rangers that a team had 105 or more shots in two games. Interestingly, I looked it up and, like the Panthers, the Rangers also dropped one of those two games.

Los Angeles Kings: Hey all you Los Angeles residents, there's enough time to get on the Kings bandwagon before they regress toward the mean, and hard!

Minnesota Wild: Brent Burns(notes) pretty much singlehandedly beat the Blue Jackets on Saturday. He's also tops on the team with five goals so far this year. Also he is a defenseman, so that doesn't speak too well of the Wild forwards, does it?

Montreal Canadiens: This right here is Brian Gionta's(notes) first goal since Oct. 15.

He took 36 shots between the two tallies. Which is kind of a lot.

Nashville Predators: Prospect Chet Pickard(notes) is losing his mojo big-time. After spending all of last year in the AHL, he's down in the ECHL and struggling with an .833 save percentage and 4.51 GAA. And now the Preds goalie factory only has 13 or so future NHL netminders in the system. Shameful.

New Jersey Devils: Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) Says a Bunch of Crap No One Ever Listens To: the shocking exposé.

New York Islanders: Don't look now, gang, but the Isles have dropped seven straight, all in regulation. They're so bad even New Jersey's within a point of them.

New York Rangers: Brandon Dubinsky's(notes) having a hell of a season and no one has really noticed because the Rangers kinda suck, like most of the rest of the East.

Ottawa Senators: Alex Kovalev(notes) should play the Habs every night. He's got 4-3-7 in nine games against his old team, including a pair of goals on Saturday, since signing with Ottawa. Compare that with 19-30-49 in 82 against everyone else.

Philadelphia Flyers: This year, the Flyers have mostly been using Mike Richards'(notes) skill to make James van Riemsdyk(notes) look competent. It has worked.

Phoenix Coyotes: Shane Doan(notes)? Out indefinitely. No good for the Coyotes.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Did you know Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) hasn't been very good this season? Apparently Dan Bylsma is just getting that memo. (Save Empty Netters.)

San Jose Sharks: Todd McLellan put Logan Couture(notes) in Joe Thornton's(notes) place on San Jose's big line and, since he, Patrick Marleau(notes) and Dany Heatley(notes) all ended with two points apiece in a 5-2 win over Tampa, I guess it worked.

St. Louis Blues: TJ Oshie(notes) is the scariest thing on earth right now. He not only almost killed David Krejci(notes), but also put Zdeno Chara(notes) on his wallet. Holy hell.

This U.S. Olympic committee should send this kid to Russia in 2014. Everyone would just forfeit.

Tampa Bay Lightning: When asked about it, Dan Boyle didn't have much nice to say about the Lightning's old ownership. "They got rid of the poison at the top, and that's what those guys (Barrie and Koules) were, they were poison,'' Boyle said. Hurtful.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Fire Ron Wilson, come the cries. About a year too late.

Vancouver Canucks: Not often you see Pavel Datsyuk(notes) turn over the puck for a shorthanded goal, so enjoy it.

Nice work by Manny Malhotra(notes) there.

Washington Capitals: "At some point, isn't SOMEONE on the Caps going to have to fight an opponent?" asks the Washington Post, of a team that's tied for 11th in the league in fighting majors. Fun fact: The Panthers, Thrashers, Hurricanes and Predators are tied for last. With three each.

Gold Star Award

Oh hello Jonathan Toews(notes) it's nice to see you finally.

Minus of the Weekend

Look at the lede of this Kings article here. Wikipedia says Bill Plaschke has been covering professional sports since 1987, and he doesn't know not to step on the logo in the middle of a hockey team's dressing room? I know children that know that. EVERYONE knows that. A fun challenge is how many lines of that column you can read before becoming embarrassed for him.

Play of the Weekend

This Cal Clutterbuck(notes) shift is pretty much why I love hockey.

Perfect HFBoards trade proposal of the week

User "raab" may or may not be an Oilers fan.

To Edm:



To Pitts:



Edm 1st



Aurora Borealis? At this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localized entirely within your kitchen?

Ryan Lambert publishes hockey awesomeness rather infrequently over at The Two-Line Pass. Check it out, why don't you? Or you can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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