The TV deal

When was the last time the NHL had anything resembling visibility? Try 2004.

Just before the lockout cost it a full season, the NHL and Disney ( DIS) had a deal that allowed ESPN to show games during the week and to give folks such as Barry Melrose and John Buccigross actual jobs instead of just trucking them out for the occasional SportsCenter segment. Disney broadcast playoff games and the Stanley Cup Finals on ABC and all was right with the world.

Until it wasn't. After the lockout, the folks at ESPN began forming their position that hockey wasn't a "real" sport that merited coverage. The Worldwide Sports Leader was getting money and interest from more lucrative sports and couldn't be bothered to expend airtime on a league that just scotched its whole season and failed to award a Stanley Cup for the first time since 1919. With few other options, the league jumped to the Outdoor Life Network in a move roundly criticized as a trip to sports purgatory.

For a league with a knack for bumbling itself into terrible positions more often than not, the NHL accidentally made the best decision of its post-lockout life. Outdoor Life became Comcast-owned Versus. After Comcast> ( CMCSA) merged with NBC, Versus was rebranded as the NBC Sports Network and folded into the network's expanding sports coverage. Last year, NBC paid $2 billion for 10 years of NHL coverage. That's couch change compared with the $1.9 billion ESPN is paying per year to broadcast Monday Night Football alone, but it's triple what the league was getting in rights fees before.

Fans, meanwhile, can catch games on an easy-to-find network and have access to every game of the NHL playoffs through NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC. While ratings are still a fraction of those posted by other sports, the 392,000 viewers per game that the NHL averaged last season was its highest viewership since the 1993-94 season, when the New York Rangers were on their way to the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 54 years and games were broadcast on ESPN and ESPN 2.

The NHL hasn't done a whole lot right in the past 20 years, but that one post-lockout move to an unpopular network may have saved the league from being flung to some far corner of the ESPN spectrum.

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