A U.S. TV network wants to air an NHL game? Yes, when it's outdoors

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NEW YORK - NBC has pestered the NHL to let it air a hockey game, which might seem strange considering the Stanley Cup finals drew record-low ratings for the network.

But the appeal of this particular game is it could attract the kinds of fans who didn't tune in last summer. On New Year's Day, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres will skate in the first outdoor NHL game ever played in the United States.

"It really is an event," said Bob Costas, who will host the proceedings for NBC, his presence alone indicating the network deems this an important affair with a broad audience.

"I don't think you have to be somebody who follows the NHL day in and day out to enjoy it as an event, and that's the way I'll try to set it up."

More than 73,000 fans are expected to pack Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL's Bills, for the 1 p.m. matchup. NBC's hockey analysts readily acknowledged many of the game's viewers might be people who stumble upon it while flipping channels and that's OK.

"When you turn your TV and see this spectacle that's going to be on the ice there, I think it'll be pretty tough to turn away," said Sam Flood, NBC's co-ordinating producer for sports.

Jan. 1 is considered a big day for TV viewership, so the network and league are hoping it provides a captive audience of casual fans. The goal is that this won't be the same group that loyally watches other NHL regular-season games.

"We certainly hope it isn't," said John Shannon, the NHL's senior vice-president for broadcasting. "We hope it's bigger. We hope it's better.

"It's like your first job application. NBC and CBC (which will air the game in Canada) are getting us in the door. Now it's our job to entertain people and make sure that the game's right and that they come back the next week to watch our other NBC game or watch the Versus games or watch other games in Canada."

NBC executives have hoped to stage an outdoor game since the network and the league began their contract after the lockout, Flood said. The Sabres were willing to host, and the Penguins were an obvious opponent because of a certain player named Sidney Crosby.

"He is a type of player - and every sport has 'em - that when a guy like Sidney Crosby is on the television, you stop and you watch," NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk said.

When viewers click to NBC and see players skating around with a blue sky in the background, Flood joked that they'll think, "Am I really this drunk from New Year's Eve?"

"Part of it is the, 'What the heck are we looking at here?"' he said.

Too much bad weather would be unwelcome, as it would lead to the game being delayed or postponed. But a little interference from the elements would add to the drama and esthetic appeal.

The network, in fact, will include a weather expert on its broadcast team.

"A light dusting, a little flurries on and off just to have that visual effect would be pretty spectacular," Flood said.

Flood said NBC is committed to showing the game through 6 p.m. if it is delayed, and possibly later. Discussions are ongoing as to what would happen if it is postponed to Jan. 2.

The game will go up against two college football bowls that start at 1, including a big-name Michigan-Florida matchup in the Capital One Bowl that could draw away some hockey enthusiasts in the Detroit area. Two other bowls will be ending during the game, with the Rose Bowl starting at 4:30.

So what if this game doesn't attract strong ratings? It's not as though this is the NHL's last and only chance to lure casual fans, Flood said.

"I think it's a huge leap to go from one hockey game on Jan. 1 to say that nothing can draw the audience," he said. "If you have a New York Rangers-Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup final, I will guarantee you it will get the casual fan."


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