Networks are primed for start of NHL season

Sports commentator Doc Emrick waves to fans as

Sports commentator Doc Emrick waves to fans as he is presented with a car from the New Jersey Devils during a ceremony to honor him before their game against the Vancouver Canucks. (Feb. 24, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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This won't make NHL fans feel any better about another lost autumn, but know this about two of the key television executives charged with bringing hockey back to you:

They feel your pain, not just as businessmen but as fellow true believers.

Dan Ronayne, MSG Network's executive vice president, grew up playing the sport in Michigan and on Monday called it "the greatest game ever invented."

Sam Flood, NBC Sports' executive producer, grew up playing in Massachusetts, where his father was a coach, and said, "We love the game, we love covering it and we are going to kick butt and push to get this thing back to where it needs to be."

The question is whether and /or when their audience will move past the labor disruption.

"No one knows that answer until you get ready to go," said Ronayne, who added that he is counting on the passion of hockey fans and the "sprint to the playoffs" featuring intraconference games and a condensed schedule.

Plus, he said, "In the second half of a hockey season, that's when the ratings really pick up."

Nevertheless, the lockout did inflict damage on MSG. The Knicks' strong start could not patch all the schedule holes for a network that carries the Rangers, Islanders and Devils, and even the Sabres in western New York.

Ronayne said MSG produces "more hockey games than any other network on the planet, including Canada," which is a good thing when there are games being played and a very bad thing when there are not.

But MSG has the advantage of a long tradition and should recover quickly, especially if the Rangers pick up where they left off last season.

The bigger challenge is faced by the NHL's national cable partner, NBC Sports Network, which launched one year ago relying on hockey to put it on the crowded media map. Its fall ratings without hockey were at times embarrassingly low.

"Obviously on the business side, it's frustrating we lost three months of the season on the sports network," Flood said. "We made this partnership to grow the game and grow the network."

NBC's broadcast channel was less harmed because its hockey season does not ramp up until January, anyway. But Flood said skipping the Winter Classic, which was to be at Michigan's football stadium Jan. 1, was a bitter loss.

"The thought of being in The Big House, in front of all those people, it hurts," he said. "It's tough to think we were deprived of that this year."

MSG's schedule will be more crowded and complex than ever as its teams race to the finish line, often against each other, beginning with Devils at Islanders on Saturday.

Ronayne said the roster of announcers returns intact, as do the networks' studio shows. "Hockey Night Live" will premiere Thursday. Also, the network will do a live two-hour special from Rangers practice at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

"We're all geared up," Ronayne said. "It is what we live for, along with our Knicks coverage. We're busting right out of the gate."

Beginning Saturday (with the Kings' Cup banner unveiling), NBC will offer 14 exclusive national games. Three of those feature the Rangers, but the network has flex rights and might start fiddling with the schedule after the first month.

NBC Sports Network has games Sunday through Wednesday nights most weeks. Wednesdays are billed as "Rivalry Nights," starting next week with the Bruins and Rangers at MSG.

The idea, Flood said, is "celebrating the hatred that makes hockey so special."

Doc Emrick, Ed Olczyk and Pierre McGuire are back as the No. 1 announcing team after Emrick spent the autumn dabbling in college hockey and figure skating. (He still will call the national figure skating championships next weekend in Omaha.)

"My job is to make hockey look good on TV and to grow the game as a television product and have fun with it," Flood said, "and that's what we will do."

So to summarize: Drop the puck!