ESPN gives hockey its moment on center ice

When it comes to sports television, hockey is your cousin Irving.

You remember Irving, don't you? At the big family get-together on Memorial Day, all of the kids would run off to play hide-and-go-seek, kick the can, freeze tag, find the inside trader or some other game. But, as you skipped off, Mom would say, "Don't forget to let Irving play."


And you'd grumble, because Irving had Coke-bottle glasses, a whiny voice and terminal klutziness. Now, of course, Irving is CEO of CompuGizmoTech Inc., worth $25 million and won't return your calls.

To return to the original point so quickly abandoned in the opening paragraphs, the NHL begins its Stanley Cup finals on Tuesday, but hockey still has been Irving-ized on television.


Take ESPN's "SportsCenter," for example. Though ESPN carries the NHL and has been lucky enough to telecast many of the entertaining overtime playoff games, hockey often takes a back seat, plays second fiddle or plays second fiddle while taking a back seat (hey, shaddup back there with the fiddle; I'm trying to drive) on the very network that carries the sport nationwide.

But "SportsCenter" is just a mirror. It's reflecting our national sports interest (and showing us a receding national hairline -- hello, Hair Club for Men?).

"Obviously, it would be nice if we were pulling on the same team," said ESPN hockey analyst Bill Clement of his game's status on "SportsCenter." "But we're trailing the pack."

That was apparent just from the tone of Clement's news conference Wednesday. Many of the questions dealt with hockey's lack of status among major-league sports.

"I think we're all aware of how far hockey has fallen behind other sports on television," Clement said.

Then again, hockey took a huge step forward when it returned to ESPN after an ill-advised move to SportsChannel America. ESPN is in about two-thirds of the nation's homes, SportsChannel in less than a third.

Clement was with SportsChannel last year and notices another large difference.

"Budget. We're in a position where we're able to do much more," he said, mentioning ESPN's super slow motion and telestrator.


And he said the league could do much more to get itself into the national consciousness.

"As far as marketing, the league needs a 30-minute TV show. The league needs to market its star players. . . . We need to enhance the game on television -- the obvious sense is hearing," he said.

And what of that old bugaboo, fighting?

"It's always been my feeling that more people come to games to see fights than stay away because of fights," Clement said.

"Fear of suspension in the heat of the game doesn't work. Fear of the guy stepping over the boards to retaliate does work to cut down on the [dirty] stickwork."

Clement, an important role player on two Stanley Cup champion teams with the Philadelphia Flyers, will be working his eighth finals next week. He won't come out and make a pick for the title, but did describe the Montreal Canadiens this way: "Montreal is the team that's playing like a machine. Patrick Roy has me calling him the best goaltender in the game."


(Which has got to be easier than trying to call Roy -- pronounced "not roy" -- by his last name.)

As for the speculation that an all-Canadian finals would hurt the sport, Clement said: "Hockey's been under a microscope so much this season because of all of the changes. The sport of hockey has to be able to survive any two teams in the finals."

Act globally

ESPN will bring the Stanley Cup finals to 80 countries. Hockey fans don't have to worry about missing any games if they find themselves in Brunei or in Papua New Guinea during the finals. . . . During Game 5 of the Los Angeles Kings-Toronto Maple Leafs series, the Kings' Alex Zhitnik was driven into the boards with a hard but apparently legal check that smashed his helmeted head against the Plexiglas. Announcers Tom Mees and John Davidson praised the check and spoke about the strategic effect of HD loss during overtime, but didn't express much concern about the guy's having had his brains scrambled.

What about Tom Slick?

My second favorite auto racing show after "Speed Racer" is Sunday, the Indianapolis 500 on ABC (channels 13 and 7 at 11 a.m.).


The number of "lipstick" cameras that provide a ground-level perspective on the race has been doubled. In addition to the two outside turns 2 and 4 in the wall, ABC has added lipstick (make mine Penske Purple) inside turns 1 and 3 near the new rumble strips.

In-car cameras will be riding with Nigel Mansell, Mario Andretti (the unluckiest man in Indianapolis other than Jeff George), Scott Goodyear, Gary Bettenhausen and Al Unser Jr. ABC will have to find one more car for a camera, because Bobby Rahal was part of the original lineup, but didn't qualify to race.

Paul Page calls the lap-by-lap, along with analysts Sam Posey and Bobby Unser. In the pits will be Jack Arute, Gary Gerould and the Pit Doctor, Dr. Jerry Punch. . . .

On Sunday, the wheels don't come off after Indy. TBS is carrying NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 at 4:05 p.m.

Head games

If you saw any baseball highlights on Wednesday night, then you know that the early line favorite for the CNN Play of the Year is Jose Canseco's header in the outfield -- letting the ball bounce off his head and over the wall for a home run. . . . Major-league owners vote today on the ABC-NBC baseball deal. USA Today reported this week that ESPN will get a six-year renewal of its baseball contract, which, like CBS', expires after this season. ESPN will cut back from four to two nights a week -- one game on Sunday night and a Wednesday night doubleheader, the newspaper said. . . .


"The Other Side of Victory: Baseball," a one-hour show focusing on black players' efforts to make it in the majors, airs tonight at 9 on Channel 2. The program's hosts are CBS' James Brown and ESPN's Robin Roberts. . . . When the networks say forget baseball's Saturday Game of the Week, they point to ratings. Such as this past week's in Baltimore? CBS' Saturday game ranked 10th among the market's sports programs. Among the shows beating the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox game were Channel 2's "Sunday Sports Extra," Channel 45's "Sports Unlimited" and Channel 13's "George Michael's Sports Machine."