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Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?

Taking "Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN" to the beach was, perhaps, the best argument I've experienced for replacing bound-books with digital devices. It comes in at 748 bloated pages, making Stephen King's "The Stand" seem like a flier for a local home-cleaning service by comparison. It was heavier than my cooler.

Of the 748 pages, there are roughly eight pages dedicated to ESPN's relationship with the NHL that spanned from 1985 to 2004, save for three years on SportsChannel America. Nothing about the actual games, their presentation, anything illuminating the behind-the-scenes personalities during that nearly two-decade run — just eight pages about the divorce.

Eight really good pages, it should be said. Some of the more entertaining parts of this meandering tome — a disappointment, given the narrative clarity of the authors' "Saturday Night Live" book — were about the executive-level battles over rights with rivals, like the Monday Night/Sunday Night Football tangle between ABC, NBC and ESPN. (You could have pulled out all the "MNF" drama, like the Tony Kornheiser experiment, and created a hell of a book on its own.)

Authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales present an interesting juxtaposition between a jilted Gary Bettman taking his League to Comcast after the lockout, and ESPNers like SportsCenter host Steve Levy criticizing that move.

From the book, here's Levy:

"The people at VERSUS offered essentially more than twice what we did, and the NHL, and I believe this is shortsighted, took the money. And the League has made this mistake before over the years with that SportsChannel America. They got to make a few extra bucks, but nobody could see the games. It's not as bad, but it's somewhat similar. I'm constantly being told by players and the players' association and the NHL that the guys are frustrated. Can't get the games. Don't know what channel it's on. Can't get it in the hotel when they're on the road. They can't watch their own sport. And in essence that's driven a lot of people probably to ESPN because they can at least get the highlights and analysis. I think we've actually stepped up our hockey coverage since we haven't had the sport."

We'll let that one digest for a moment. Levy continued:

"I don't believe we did anything wrong as a company, as a network. I thought we made a fair offer. Nobody promotes the game the way we do. I wouldn't swear by the financial figures, but I think it meant, by going to VERSUS, an extra one million dollars per team. So it was a $30 million difference, or something like that.

"And I think that's shortsighted for the lack of promotion and the lack of visibility for the sport."

Since the book was published, the NHL entered into that 10-year, $2-billion contract with NBC Universal, keeping hockey on the Peacock and the newly rechristened NBC Sports Network (soon to be formerly known as VERSUS) until right around when Rick DiPietro's(notes) contract is up.

So within that new context, is Levy still correct? Was it shortsighted to leave ESPN? And does ESPN cover hockey better now than it did when the NHL was still in the family?

Miller and Shales frame the NHL's post-lockout split within the frustrating reality of what their partnership with ESPN had become: Hockey being pushed to the margins in favor of ESPN Original Programming and flavors of the month like Texas Hold'em.

From the book, Gary Bettman:

"We'd been partners for all those years; they built ESPN2 into this behemoth on our back for virtually no cost for our programming. We had just dome through one of the most difficult and extraordinary times that a sports league had ever been through, and their answer, instead of embracing us and trying to make it right, was 'We're going to take another pound of flesh.' Unlike when Dick Ebersol came to the board meeting during the work stoppage and said, 'We know you guys have business to take care of. Do what you have to do and we'll be there when you get done.'"

The authors report that Mark Shapiro, then president of ESPN, told Bettman that ESPN had just $30 million to offer the NHL, and made it a take-it-or-leave deal — no negotiation. Bettman said no, and that led to the league hooking up with Comcast's Outdoor Life Network and into that "public access" deal with NBC.

Steve Levy of ESPN, again:

"Every time I see any of the execs, I think everybody would like to have hockey back. We always joke, 'Hey, we'll take the NBC deal where we don't have to pay a rights fee and if there is a profit, we'll be happy to split it with you.' But I don't believe we were offered that."

ESPN wasn't, but that's because Bettman and the NHL felt ESPN owed them something more than a leap of faith. Instead, a television partner on and off since the mid-1980s decided to play the bully.

Bettman, from the book:

"Once they have you, there's no incentive to grow you because it costs them more money. Mark [Shapiro] played tough with us because he could. I think they were trying to send a message, but they overplayed their hand because they drove me to the point of creating a new partnership."

That last point is an essential one in the NHL/ESPN debate: Growth. Say what you will about the quality of VERSUS's coverage, but they dedicated airtime to the NHL that wouldn't have been provided on the crowded schedule on ESPN and ESPN2 — especially during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was in their best interests to grow the centerpiece of their network.

Was leaving ESPN a mistake for the NHL?For NBC, it was in their best interests to have some type of counterprogramming for the college bowl games that ABC and ESPN have on Jan. 1. Enter the Winter Classic, which could go down as one of the most successful things the NHL has ever created (or co-created, as it were).

Meanwhile, the NHL was regaining its footing as a League thanks to renewed star power (Sidney Crosby(notes), Alex Ovechkin(notes)), a more exciting brand of hockey due to rules changes and significant franchises reversing their fortunes (like the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins).

All of this led to NBC Universal paying out the ass to retain hockey, but that was partially of their own creation: The partnership helped grow the game in the U.S.

So the critical question here, to go back to Levy's point: Could ESPN have grown it even bigger?

Bruce Dowbiggin of the Globe & Mail believes the jury's still out on that, but doesn't seem to buy the ESPN Effect:

"Attributing the 2011 NBC payoff to the Versus move in 2005 is a stretch. Who knew they'd merge with NBC back in the dark post-lockout days? Could ESPN have brought the NHL more public recognition earlier? Unlikely so long as they buried the NHL on their second network. It was exterior forces that changed the landscape. Till it got with the new rules, Winter Classics and HBOs, the U.S. public simply wasn't buying what Bettman was selling.

"So the NHL got more money from OLN/Versus, the visibility issue with ESPN2 was a wash, and now there is the hope that NBC's diverse universe of TV channels and web platforms can deliver more than ESPN. Conclusion: It took a while, but Bettman's stand against Shapiro finally has paid off in modest fashion. Which is about the best hockey can hope for in the shadow the NFL, NCAA, NBA and MLB."

Say this about ESPN: Their coverage of hockey on digital platforms has improved greatly, with Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and other scribes pumping out content. The fact that Bill Simmons has located his inner puckhead is a great thing for the sport, too; not only because it means hockey on the B.S. Report but also former Deadspin writer Katie Baker writing hockey on Grantland.

The coverage of the NHL is impressive on ESPN.com, but the sport's still buried on the network's chat shows, SportsCenter programs and overall content on television. It's on the margins, with no compelling reason for the on-air talent to give a toss about it (because many don't to begin with). How much hockey do you hear (or see) on "Mike and Mike"? Or "Around The Horn"? Take a guy like Colin Cowherd, who is a centerpiece of ESPN Radio and now inescapable on ESPN's TV networks -- you think this guy is giving the NHL quality coverage?

There's always going to be a lingering question about whether today's NHL could have been a darling on today's ESPN, given all the positive momentum for the sport in the U.S. currently.

But as far as the old "the NHL needs ESPN" harangue we heard so often during OLN/VERSUS years … well, do you still buy it?

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