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Paragon subscribers lose on opening night

Somebody goofed, folks. The best NHL game that wasn't televised would have grabbed the attention of cable viewers and converted them into hockey fans overnight.

In the team's inaugural first period on Wednesday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning scored five goals against the Chicago Blackhawks. The excitement was contagious at Expo Hall. Too bad subscribers of Paragon Cable weren't able to see it.

Because of a contract snafu with Sunshine Network, the game was blacked out to 300,000 Paragon Cable households in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Polk counties. Paragon is the largest cable outlet in Tampa Bay. I watched the game on Sunshine Network from the St. Petersburg Times' Clearwater office, which is equipped with Vision Cable. Vision Cable also carries Sunshine Network.

The Lightning's fast start simplified things for play-by-play announcer John Kelly and color commentator Danny Gare. Making their television debut with the Lightning, the Kelly-Gare connection scored several hits and came away with relatively few misses.

The Lightning's early success made the game fun to watch, and the broadcast team smartly made it a point not to intrude upon what turned out to be an incredible opening two periods as the home team grabbed a 7-2 lead.

Kelly has a smooth delivery, and his ability to explain the action in crisp, precise tones should prove a settling influence to the legion of Tampa Bay viewers still learning the game of hockey.

Kelly's voice raises in pitch when a goal is scored, regardless of the team, and he quickens his pace when a team is carrying the play in the offensive end.

Gare is rough around the edges, but he brings enthusiasm and 13 years of NHL experience as a player, including a 50-goal season in 1975-76. He noted the little things, like how Chicago's Ed Belfour, one of the NHL's top goaltenders, has a tendency to drop to the ice and therefore is susceptible to high shots.

Most of the few awkward moments were courtesy of pregame, between-periods and post-game host Paul Kennedy, whose expertise is in basketball and football. Kennedy is a strong interviewer, but he appeared unfamiliar talking about hockey on opening night.

All in all, it was a very uncomfortable day for Paragon Cable, which fielded several hundred telephone calls Wednesday from viewers who were upset that the game wasn't televised.

Jeff McQuinn, president of the Tampa Bay division of Paragon Cable, admitted that Sunshine Network offered to remove the fee from Wednesday's game but that Paragon Cable refused the offer.

"There was an offer made. But that didn't change anything. The contract is still not negotiated," McQuinn said Wednesday night.

"We're taking a terrible beating in the media and from the public because of the position we are taking. Somebody is trying to manipulate the public against Paragon, which is unfortunate. The public doesn't understand that our position is helping them long-term."