Three nights a week, ESPN2 hockey announcers take off their jackets and ties and go cool. They talk "puck." They use words like "grunge box" instead of penalty box. They dress casual by design.
It isn't Beavis and Butt-Head meet the NHL. But there is no doubt ESPN2's "NHL Fire on Ice" is playing to the same audience.
"Surveys show the majority of hockey viewers range in age from 18 to 35," said ESPN senior producer for hockey Mark Quenzel. "I was a little surprised by that. But that's the MTV audience. We haven't changed how we cover the game, but we're taking some risks. We're trying out lower camera angles. We're using a different look, more MTV graphics. The music is rock-and-roll. The shirts are denim, the jackets if there are any, are blue blazers, and the shirt collars are open."
And between periods they interview players -- without their helmets. They let the players talk -- at length. They use hand-held cameras for diverse angles. They do more creative features off the ice, focusing on players' personalities.
"Our premise is: if you know and recognize the players, you'll care about them," said Quenzel.
Tom Mees is the lead play-by-play man on the broadcasts. He says it is harder for the ESPN2 staff to adjust to the new style than it is for the players and fans.
"The players are in that younger age group," said Mees, 44. "They relate. I readily admit I didn't know who Beavis and Butt-Head were before we started this and I hate MTV. I think it's in the worst taste. But we're trying to attract that audience. If we can do it by removing the coat and tie, I can do that."
But Mees remembers the first broadcast this season, in Montreal.
"It's a very traditional place and some people didn't appreciate the casual approach," he said. "We were told to be real casual in ZTC our conversation on the air, and when I signed on, I said, 'Hi, this is Tom Mees, you're average talking guy.' And even that made me uncomfortable.
"But it has gotten easier. I don't talk differently. I've decided the reason I'm on the air is because they like my play-by-play and I'm doing that the same way I always have."
The ratings? This is the second year of a five-year deal. Quenzel says hockey is about where motor sports was five years ago and the NCAA playoffs before March Madness.
Last year, ESPN's Hockey Night pulled a .8 rating during the regular season, reaching 491,000 households. That's 122,000 more households than the show drew in 1987-88.
By the time the network finished the Stanley Cup finals last season, the numbers had gone up to a 2.1 rating or 1.3 million homes. As yet, there are no numbers available on ESPN2's "Fire on Ice."
"Ask me about the ratings at the end of the contract," Quenzel said. "We're hoping it won't take that long, but as long as we see signs of improvement, that's all we're looking for."
The NHL has until Monday to reach a contract agreement with its officials. If an agreement isn't reached by Nov. 15, the games will go on -- probably without the current NHL officials.
The NHL, negotiating since the officials' contract ran out Aug. 31, has recruited more than 40 officials from university, junior- and minor-league ranks. At a workshop last weekend in Indianapolis, sources say, some were found wanting. And already there is disagreement on how good the replacements will be.
Bryan Lewis, director of NHL officiating, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel last week he was "extremely pleased with the caliber of people who have made themselves available to us." But Richard Doerksen, supervisor of officials for the Western Hockey league, told the Canadian Press the NHL may be in for an unpleasant surprise, "if they feel in the tough rivalry games that somebody who has just worked Junior-A hockey can step in and handle that," Doerksen said.
The NHL is offering at least a 15-percent increase to the 16 referees and 32 linesmen. The officials are asking for 60 percent, that's 40 percent less than their original request.
A first-year NHL referee earns $50,000 and a linesman $33,000. Major-league baseball umpires start at $60,000; NBA officials, $57,000.
Meetings between the two sides are to continue today in Toronto.
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks are the kind of team fans -- and sportscasters -- can cozy up to. Just ask Channel 2 sports director Scott Garceau, who has adopted the team as "Our Mighty Ducks."
"We lost the Skipjacks and I felt we needed a hockey team," said Garceau. "This is nothing against the Capitals. I hope the Capitals do well. I like their coach. But I wouldn't adopt them any more than I'd adopt the Redskins or any other area team."
But there is something about those Ducks and their mascot. Garceau has bought Mighty Duck nightshirts for his children, Kelly, 12, and Danielle, 10, and suspects they are Ducks fans, like him.
"We thought if the Ducks have a big year, later on, we might bring in a few players," Garceau said of Channel 2's plans. "We'll work the local angle. There are several former Skipjacks on the team."
NHL tries a little sugar
The All-Star Game is known for its lack of defense. None of the players has any incentive to win the game. This season, the league will offer $5,000 per player for the winning side, zilch for the losers.