The NHL took a giant step to gain more national exposure Wednesday by reaching a five-year agreement with ESPN, the United States' largest cable network.
The NHL broadcast rights for the past four years have been held by SportsChannel America, which reaches only about 20-million homes in the United States.
ESPN reaches about three times more (61.4-million homes or 66 percent of American homes with televisions).
"We're very excited to return to ESPN after a four-year absence," NHL president-elect Gil Stein said by conference call Wednesday night.
ESPN showed select NHL games from 1980 to 1982 and had a previous contract with the league from 1985 to 1988. But the NHL owners decided four years ago to go for more money over more exposure and ditched ESPN for SportsChannel.
ESPN and NHL officials declined to comment on the amount of the rights for the new agreement. But Bruce McNall, owner of the Los Angeles Kings and chairman of the NHL Board of Governors, said early Wednesday the deal was worth $80-million ($16-million a year). That is $1-million less per year than SportsChannel America paid for the first three years of its contract. It paid just $5.5-million last season.
ESPN also is working with the NHL to get a major network (ABC, CBS or NBC) to televise at least four or five games a season. ABC is most likely because it is a parent company of ESPN.
Except for All-Star Games, the NHL has not been televised on a major network since 1976. NBC will televise the 1993 All-Star Game, but beyond that, the rights to that game are up in the air.
This season ESPN will televise at least 25 regular-season games, mostly on Friday nights, and up to 37 playoff games, including every game of the Stanley Cup finals.
ESPN officials said they have yet to decide on announcers and color analysts. But Tom Mees is believed to be a leading play-by-play candidate.
The only game set is opening night, Oct. 6, with Philadelphia at Pittsburgh.
"That's Eric Lindros' debut and the Stanley Cup Champions," said Loren Matthews, ESPN's senior vice president of programing. "It didn't take much brains."
The rest of the schedule has not been determined. Matthews said ESPN will try to show a variety of games. When asked if the Tampa Bay Lightning would appear on the cable network, he said, "If you are asking for a prediction, the answer to that is yes."
The NHL Governors were given the proposed agreement Tuesday night and accepted it Wednesday by conference call. "The vote was not close," Stein said.
The ESPN agreement will not directly affect the Lightning's local coverage by Sunshine Network and WTOG-Ch. 44. The NHL blackout rule that has been in place for the last seven years will remain in effect.
If a team's game (either home or away) is televised in its home market, then ESPN cannot show that game in that team's home market. ESPN will televise a backup game.
Sunshine spokeswoman Amy Pempel said televising NHL games on ESPN will not hurt Sunshine's coverage, "it will complement it. The more exposure hockey can get, the better it will help us. Hopefully, fans will watch the Lightning games anyway, and this is a chance to see even more hockey."
Gerry Helper, the Lightning's vice president for communications, said: "From our perspective of an expansion franchise that is in quote, unquote a non-traditional hockey market, making hockey accessible to more people is important. Now they can see Lightning games plus other NHL games, so they can really follow the whole league."
So where does that leave Sports- Channel America?
Stein said he hopes to open discussions with SportsChannel, to be joined by ESPN, about a continued role for SportsChannel in the broadcast plans. Stein declined to elaborate.
But the NHL agreement with ESPN grants the cable network exclusive national coverage this season and exclusive international television distribution (excluding Canada) for the next five years. ESPN has the option to extend the terms of the domestic agreement for four years.
Stein also said there was a disagreement over whether SportsChannel had the right of first refusal for this season. Stein didn't rule out the possibility of litigation.
Since Stein took over as president-elect of the NHL in June with the ousting of John Ziegler, he has been vocal that it is important to get the NHL more exposure.
Stein has also said he would like to be the league's new commissioner.
Will this new broadcast contract he helped negotiate boost his stock with NHL Governors?
"It's not a negative," he said.
Rangers: Goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck became the NHL's newest millionaire when he signed a three-year contract with the New York Rangers worth an estimated $3-million. Vanbiesbrouck, who turns 29 Friday, was 27-13-5 with a 2.85 goals-against average in 45 games last season. He was second in the NHL with a 91.0 save percentage.
Penguins: Pittsburgh is negotiating with former coach and general manager Eddie Johnston to return as coach and apparently has worked out a new contract with goaltender Tom Barrasso. The Penguins are expected to announce today that Barrasso, who was in the option year of his contract, has agreed to a three-year deal worth about $5.2-million. Johnston was fired last spring as the general manager of the Hartford Whalers, a position he had held since May 1989. He took the Whalers' job one year after being replaced as Penguins' general manager by Tony Esposito.
Russian coach is out: After nearly 15 years as the most successful coach in international hockey, Victor Tikhonov is out as coach of the Russian national team, according to a report in the weekly Moscow News. Tikhonov was replaced by Boris Mikhailov, 47, his chief assistant. Boris Babich, executive director of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, told The Associated Press that Tikhonov had decided to quit.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.