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If you thought that free NHL cable service was the Valentine Gary Bettman was going to send you after the 113-day NHL lockout, guess again. The popular TV service showing out-of-town games will cost again this season, only at a reduced price.

In the U.S., where the Center Ice service is often the only source for games, various cable companies are offering it at a reduced rate of $49.99 for the truncated season. That's as opposed to the $180 charged for an 82-game schedule. It represents a 40 per cent saving over last year.

In Canada, the cable and satellite companies (in collaboration with the NHL) set the price for the service. While it's anticipated that there will be a price break, as of Monday night nothing had been posted to the websites of the carriers indicating what the 2013 pricing will be.

Individual teams. meanwhile, have begun announcing incentives to fans. In Vancouver, there will be a "shirt off the back" giveaway to fans on Saturday's opening. Ottawa is giving discounts to children accompanied by adults paying full fare. Montreal's offering free food to fans at an open practice at the Bell Centre.

Toronto fired its GM. Okay, maybe that wasn't a planned promotion for Leafs fans. It just worked out that way.

Making the job easier for the teams to woo back fans is research that shows that the NHL shield is the one more tarnished by the lockout. Team logos, meanwhile, are largely getting a pass from fans on responsibility for the meltdown. Even in cities where owners were very active in pursuing the aggressive negotiating strategy– Boston, Calgary, Minnesota, Anaheim– there is no extra blowback on those teams.

Ratings windfall

Lance Armstrong fessed up to Oprah Winfrey on Monday about the needle and the damage done to his reputation. In an interview to be broadcast Thursday on Oprah's vanity TV network (and now stretched over into a second night because there is so much material to cover), the disgraced cyclist/charity fundraiser reportedly said, "My Bad" over his continued insistence that he was clean as a whistle in winning seven Tours de France.

He made a similar apology (minus drug reference) to the bewildered staff at his Livestrong charity, which has had the props kicked from under it by his plummet from grace.

Even as Armstrong unburdened himself, it was fair to ask whom the mea culpas served better. Armstrong, seeking to resume his near-deity status with the public. Or Winfrey, whose cable network has gone about well as Armstrong's campaign of plausible deniability.

Oprah is banking on this 90-minute exclusive to pump life into her sagging ratings, currently about 350,000. That's a far cry from her syndication days when Oprah drew millions (and made billions) to see demented movie stars like Tom Cruise bounce on the sofa or hear defrocked athletes like Marion Jones blubber about their fates.

Can Lance's tears make the profits flow for Oprah? (He'll have to do most of the work, because Winfrey is not exactly Mike Wallace when it comes to extracting honesty.) If bad news sells then it could be happy days again at the O Network. For Armstrong it could take a lot longer to rehab his image.

The news of his use of PEDs should not have come as a shock to anyone who has had eyes to see or ears to hear the past two decades. Yet large segments of the mainstream public will be gobsmacked that Saint Lance perpetuated a nasty legal campaign against anyone who questioned his story of performing clean.

To the bitter end, zealots routinely said that the drug lies were a small tradeoff for Armstrong's fundraising for cancer. Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, a true believer who recently penned a laudatory magazine piece on Armstrong, finally fessed up in a tweet. "My cover story about Lance Armstrong...was the worst piece of opinion I have ever written." Nice to know, Buzz.

Cue Daniel Day Lewis. Or that guy he plays, Lincoln. You can fool some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time. But you can't fool Twitter.

Rivalry made in Nike heaven

I Am Tiger, Hear Me Rory: Golf fans have been wondering what it might take for Tiger Woods to jumpstart his quest to overhaul Jack Nicklaus' record 18 major tournament wins. Paul Azinger, who has been trampled by Woods at a number of tournaments, thinks he knows what might do the trick: Rory McIlroy's stunning new $250-million deal with Nike, Woods' sponsor, announced Monday in Abu Dhabi.

Azinger tweeted Monday, "Tiger will use Rory's signing with #nike as motivation. I believe this will be the defining moment of the Tiger Woods comeback! 1/14/2013."

Azinger is not typically a water carrier for Woods. But he knows better than most how the huge money given McIlroy can threaten and inspire Woods at the same time. The notoriously parsimonious Woods places great stock in being golf's lead dog for sponsorships. See the young Irishman cutting his grass financially would be a blow to Woods' pride.

Does Tiger still have the game? Judging by the way he's played majors of late, it's getting precarious for Woods to win five more majors and overtake Nicklaus. He's still among the top five golfers in the world, but his closing kick has been missing in majors. We'll see soon if Azinger's right, that McIlroy's millions are the key. / @dowbboy

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