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Screen Shots: NHL in the dark with NBC TV deal

Imagine you're a young movie director eager to show off your work to the world. You struggle for months and months to put together a vision that will establish you as a film force to be reckoned with – and when it's time for the premiere, you spare no expense in finding the biggest theater in the best location.

Now imagine that the theater's owner tells you he's only got enough time to show the first three-quarters of your movie, because he's guaranteed to sell out the building later that night by showing the latest animated monstrosity from Disney. Do you still unveil your movie there, knowing full well the audience won't see the ending?

If you've got any respect for your product, you kindly instruct the guy to shove it, grab your movie and find a theater that respects what you do. However, if your name is Gary Bettman, you swallow the insult with a smile, show as much of the movie as you're allowed to and agree to do the whole thing all over again as soon as possible.

That's basically what happened last Saturday during the now-infamous Horse's Ass Game aired (sort of) on NBC. The U.S. network utterly humiliated the NHL by cutting away from the Buffalo/Ottawa overtime in favor of the Preakness Stakes pre-race show.

I repeat: the best hockey has to offer – playoff overtime – was pre-empted by a 90-minute preview of miniature men riding pre-glue factory components around a track for a couple minutes.

This is an entertainment partnership? What, like Ike and Tina Turner?

It is easy to be disgusted with NBC's decision, but most understand the cold, hard business facts that led to their choice. That leaves no one else to blame except for the NHL braintrust that agreed to hand their product over to such bottom-liners in the first place.

If the league knew there was even the slightest chance their game would be pre-empted, they should've scheduled the game after the Preakness was run, or on Sunday. And if NBC wanted no part of such a scenario, well, here's your hat, don't let the door, etc.

Should anything good comes out of this disaster, I hope it's the recognition of how far off the grid the NHL has fallen in America. From now on, let's do away with the Pollyanna pretensions and projections and acknowledge the real damage the lockout has wrought on the league's U.S. market.

But the lockout isn't the only cause of the league's vanishing in the U.S. There's also the NHL's move from ESPN to Versus, a decision that would've been perilous even if each and every one of the league's franchises were in rock-solid shape; in reality, it became the roundhouse kick to the head to an American fan base that already had suffered a lockout-related punch to the throat.

Since then, the NHL has been removed from the average American sports fan's psyche as if it were a prop in a David Copperfield stunt. Newspapers have cut coverage. The few “highlights” that get aired on TV are usually the ones involving swung sticks, sucker punches and stretchers.

The Horse's Ass fiasco is but the latest example of league's infinite supply of short-term thinking. From the over-reliance on expansion fees, to the reticence towards major changes to the game – yes, the lockout changed their minds in that regard, but even then, it was only temporary before the league reverted back into the “all is well” mode it operates under today – to the unwillingness to tear out lower-bowl seats and expand the ice surface, the NHL has almost always chosen the quick hit over the long, slower, smarter build.

And don't you dare give me any of that “revenues have never been better!” claptrap. Those who have been to games in St. Louis, Florida, New Jersey, Washington and about eight other NHL locales know how dire the league's straits are. Just because owners push their luck pushing up ticket prices doesn't make them sports visionaries of the highest order.

To the contrary: their willingness to sell only one section of their product on NBC demonstrates a serious, scary ignorance of the most vital portion of that product: the payoff. That's what everyone expects from a good joke, great song, or any other entertainment experience. But they didn't get that last Saturday – and, worst of all, the NHL can't guarantee it won't happen again.

Think of E.T. without the little brown bugger returning to wherever it was he came from. Think of The Great Escape without the escape. Think of The Usual Suspects without the twist to end all twists.

Robbed of their natural endings, each of those films would be summarily flung into the entertainment industry's remainder bin. Without a dramatic reversal of form, that's precisely where the NHL and its nearly-aired games are headed.

Adam Proteau's Screen Shots appears every Thursday only on Want to take a shot at Adam Proteau? You can reach him at or through our Ask Adam feature. And be sure to check out Proteau's Blog for daily insight on the world of hockey.

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