NHL Skates to OLN

ESPN is out and OLN is in.

Comcast Corp.-owned OLN has skated off with the rights to the National Hockey League for at least the next two seasons, and it could be home to the professional puck circuit into the next decade.

The deal -- valued at a reported $65 million for the upcoming season and $70 million in 2006-07 -- will give OLN regular-season games on Monday and Tuesday nights, plus a spate of playoff contests, including the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals.

That was a price that incumbent carrier ESPN -- which previously passed on its option to pick the 2005-06 season for some $60 million -- was unwilling to pay.

ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer issued the following statement Wednesday night: “Tonight, we informed the NHL that we did not accept their final contract offer. We worked very hard to build and sustain our relationship with the league and would have liked to continue. However, given the prolonged work stoppage and the league’s TV-ratings history, no financial model even remotely supports the contract terms offered. We wish the NHL all the best.”

A work stoppage claimed the 2004-05 season and has ultimately yielded a salary cap with decreased values for players.

“Over the years, thousands of great NHL moments were presented to our fans through the lenses of ESPN cameras,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a prepared statement. “ESPN was a supportive partner, and both the National Hockey League and ESPN enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. We wish ESPN continued success.”

The deal is a big boost for the beleaguered league, which faced the prospects of returning to the sports arena without a national cable carrier. NBC, through a revenue-sharing pact, will air a handful of regular-season and playoff games, plus the last five Stanley Cup Finals contests should the series go the full seven games.

However, OLN lacks the promotional push of the ESPN empire, not to mention having 26 million fewer subscribers.

Nevertheless, the NHL will likely boost OLN’s ratings, particularly in April and May, when most of the playoff games air.

ESPN and ESPN2 averaged a 0.5 household rating (20 regular-season games) and a 0.2 mark (50 games), respectively, during the 2003-04 season, with playoff telecasts only slightly better. Still, those numbers compare well with OLN’s 0.2 primetime household rating in 2004. Even with its extended presentation of Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France triumph, OLN only averaged a 0.3 primetime mark in July.

The NHL agreement also calls for Comcast to carry the NHL Network, which is now available in Canada.

OLN holds an option for a third season, the 2007-08 campaign, at $72.5 million. Beyond that, Comcast and OLN hold the option to extend the pact for three more seasons.

The addition of the NHL continues the shifting sails for OLN, which dropped its Outdoor Life Network name in June.

The 64 million-home network, headed by Gavin Harvey, has been known principally for its coverage of the Tour de France. However, in recent months, it has taken a stab with reality syndication, adding encore editions of CBS and Mark Burnett stalwart Survivor to its roster. It also secured the rights to the America’s Cup yachting series. Additionally, OLN presents bull riding and alternative sports, like the Gravity Games, as well as some hunting and fishing fare.

The channel could also wind up being home to the National Football League. Comcast, along with a number of other parties, has interest in tackling a late-season Thursday/Saturday primetime package of games.

Many observers believe the addition of this package to OLN’s roster could serve as a springboard to the network taking a run as a competitor to ESPN as a broad-based national sports service -- a scenario Comcast chief Brian Roberts has denied.