A Hockey Channel, Eh?

The NBA has its own channel, and, starting Tuesday, the NFL will, too. Next in line among the professional sports leagues may be a National Hockey League cable network.

The hockey league has had a digital cable channel, the NHL Network, in Canada for two years and plans to import the service to the U.S. When that will happen, however, is unclear.

The objective, says league Executive Vice President and COO Jon Litner, has been that the league would decide its next step when its current TV pact ends. That time is approaching. The NHL is in the final season of its TV deal with ESPN and ABC Sports. Talks are under way on renewing the contract (they are in an exclusive window right now), and both sides say discussions are progressing.

Like other sports niche nets, the NHL Network, if there were one in the U.S., would cater to rabid fans. It could also be a year-round promotional vehicle for the league. "Traditionally, our fan base has been underserved by conventional media," said Litner, probably in part because hockey is a hard game to follow on television and it has a smaller fan base.

In recent years, hockey has bounced around on broadcast and cable. In 1999, it moved from Fox to ESPN and ABC, which pays $600 million per year under the five-year deal. On ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, ratings have been sluggish. (That will make it tough, industry executives venture, for the NHL to get a bump in rights fees.) Last season, when ESPN added the NBA, hockey was shifted from Wednesdays to Thursdays.

This season, in an effort to lift ratings, the NHL will make 20 ESPN games exclusive. Fans will get pick about seven ESPN2 games through online voting, and more than 300 games will be produced in high-definition to air on HDNet, ESPN HD, ABC or regional sports nets.

The league has another pressing concern: The labor agreement between its owners and players expires next September. In 1994, labor disputes resulted in a player lockout that claimed half the season. The league surely does not want a repeat of that as it's trying to line up a new TV arrangement.

Former CBS Sports President and sports consultant Neal Pilson questions the league's ability to hatch a channel while its new TV deal and labor issues are unresolved. "It takes a lot of manpower and resources to launch [a channel] and certain amount of risk."

Litner disputes that assertion. "We are very well-positioned to roll it out down here," he said. "The question is when and what it will look like."

Still, in the midst of all that, the NHL is doing due diligence on the cable business. Litner says the NHL is having conversations with operators. Of course, it helps that Comcast, the country's largest operator, owns the Philadelphia Flyers, and Cablevision, with 3 million subscribers in the New York area, owns the New York Rangers.

NHL executives are also studying the different network models. Like the NBA, it could keep a slate of regular-season and playoff games to air on its own channel. Most likely, those games would be blacked out in local markets. Or, like the NFL Network, the NHL Network could stick to preseason games and other smaller leagues.

"Every league needs to balance live programming with evergreen programming, local markets vs. national markets," said Litner, adding that the NHL is still looking at its mix.

In Canada, the NHL Network does not air NHL games, except for some preseason action, as well as minor-league and college hockey. It shows classic games, news and highlight shows, and instructional programs.