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Bruce Dowbiggin (Globe and Mail)
Bruce Dowbiggin (Globe and Mail)

Usual Suspects

More TV troubles for NHL? Add to ...

The NHL's U.S. TV broadcast policy is hardly the most seaworthy vessel in the first place. Alienating ESPN and giving conventional rights to NBC for free do not constitute a clever communications gambit. Now, unless something changes quickly in negotiations between Versus (the league's cable channel in America) and DirecTV (the large satellite TV carrier in the U.S.), then the good ship NHL will take another serious torpedo next week.

DirecTV balked when Versus' parent company Comcast demanded a higher fee of the satellite company for carrying their service. According to DirecTV, "Versus is asking for terms which do not reflect the market and which they are not asking of all other distributors." So viewers have been seeing a screen message that says Versus may go bye-bye if an agreement isn't reached by the Aug. 31 deadline.

Versus, meanwhile, says that its performance on the NHL and its other programming has improved to the point where a higher fee is justified. "Since our last deal with DirecTV, Versus has added many marquee properties and has become the fastest growing sports cable network in the country," reads the Versus press release. So it's asking DirecTV to pony up. As the saying goes, negotiations continue.

Versus is available in about 75-million homes, but DirecTV dropping the channel would decrease that number by almost a third. Not the distraction NHL commissioner Gary Bettman needs as he battles heroically to save the Phoenix Coyotes from the clutches of Jim Balsillie. Last spring, Chicago owner Rocky Wirtz - one of the more powerful figures on the Board of Governors - criticized the decision to marry the league to Versus, which offers far few viewers than does ESPN. Losing DirecTV's market would only exacerbate Wirtz's ire.

Olympian Coverage: It's 220 and counting. That would be media credentials issued for Team Canada's orientation camp this week in Calgary - dubbed "Crosby, Staals and Nash - by one clever soul. In fact, the media saturation is the story of an otherwise low-key camp. Hockey Canada's brass is down playing the importance of players' performance in the workouts and Thursday's scrimmage, taking the Seinfeld approach. "It's a show about nothing". Okay, there's a little team bonding, strategy and Olympic logistics. But making the squad based on a terrific orientation camp? Epic fail, as the bloggers like to say.

Still, many in the press corps have pored over the line combinations and defence pairings to unearth journalistic nuggets. Does skating with Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla make Rick Nash a lock? Is Drew Doughty a hot commodity paired with Chris Pronger? Can Cam Ward overcome a sore back in the next 120 days to grab the third goalie position?

Usual Suspects' scoop: The four Canadians with the most international game experience are all Alberta natives (Dany Heatley, Shane Doan, Ryan Smyth and Jay Bouwmeester). And people thought wild rose country was only good for oil and reform politics!

Overheard in the media-jammed corridors of the Saddledome: Hockey Canada staff announce Andy McDonald to the mix zone. Two veteran reporters stare at the fresh-faced McDonald in befuddlement. Finally one turns to the other and says, "Doesn't look like Lanny McDonald. Let's go find Brodeur. At least we know what he looks like."

Big O No: There is no sadder sight in Canada than the concrete hulk of Olympic Stadium sitting empty and unloved in Montreal's east end. Weeds grow between the slabs and an air of melancholy for the departed Expos still permeates Roger Tallibert's white elephant. Now, the proposed November 30 NHL special game at the Big Owe between the Canadiens and Washington Capitals has been scuttled.

Among the many reasons? The sightlines for fans and TV were problematic in the vast shell of its interior. Trying to install and position the rink would require up to a week at a time of the year when the Alouettes might need the space. Even then it was thought the camera angles were mediocre in the 33-year-old building. One TV insider who requested anonymity says he's just as glad. "The place is just filthy," he said. "Really, it's not a pleasant place to go any more."

Salé Forth: Olympic gold medal skater Jamie Salé had a quick reaction when presented with the new CBC reality series Battle of the Blades: "I thought it was going to be a really silly idea, putting a hockey player and a figure skater together. What kind of TV show is that going to be?"

She has since changed her mind. "We were all laughing so hard (at the boot camp), and the guys were awesome. I didn't think that any of them would be up to wearing figure skates, but they all said, 'Let's go'. It was comical at first-- they were face planting and going into the boards. But we've been teaching them the lifts."

The show - featuring (among others) Salé, Shae-Lynn Bourne, Marie-France Dubreuil and Barbara Underhill paired with Tie Domi, Bob Probert, Craig Simpson, Glenn Anderson and Sean Burke - rehearses in September with the first show being taped October 4 for broadcast that night. "I can't tell you who my partner is," says Salé. "I can tell you Lanny (McDonald) was my partner till he had to withdraw. I loved Lanny growing up and was bummed when he hurt his knee putting in his dock. I joked that one of the girls - who was jealous of me skating with him - took a crowbar to his knee."

Sounds like a fun bunch.

All Brett, All The Time: The Brett Favre media mania set new records for shark jumping. And no single entity was more responsible for the breathless hyperbole than ESPN. So it's nice to see ESPN make fun of itself. The ubiquitous broadcaster has produced promos that spoof its obsession with the Vikings' drama-queen QB. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v'TPRXXArJxNY)

Of course, the Brettster is having fun at his own expense, too. There's a Sears ad in which he plays an indecisive TV buyer "We found there are some guys out there who really agonize on making a decision," says the Sears salesman. "It's not their thing. They waffle, they don't know what to do." Deadpans Favre. "Those guys drive me crazy."

Bet that really cracks them up in Green Bay.

Gemini Signs: Finally, hard to remember a year when a CBC type wasn't nominated for the Gemini for Best Sports Anchor. But the worthy nominees this year are TSN's James Duthie and Darren Dutchyshen and The Score's Steve Kouleas. Ironic as Kouleas has seen his profile diminished in the latest programming rethink at The Score. Harkens Usual Suspects back to 1996 when the winner that year had not one, not two, but three of his programs cancelled after capturing the prize.



dowbboy@shaw.ca

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