Hockey is hopeful it can regain momentum, fans


Now that the NHL has stumbled back from the abyss of a crippling 104-day lockout, just what will fans see and will they care? In the long term, the second question is infinitely more important than the first, and nobody has a definitive answer, including ESPN hockey analysts Mike Milbury and Bill Clement.

"I talked to [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman, and he said if the season had been a washout, they'd have had problems coming back, but he said, 'Give me a couple of weeks and we'll be right back where we were last year,' " said Milbury. "They've taken that NBA marketing approach, and I think it will work."

Said Clement: "I think that hockey, no matter when it's done, is one of those sports that you have to see live once so you can appreciate what you see. That's the momentum that maybe we lost. The cycle is this: Let's get revved up by the Rangers winning the Cup, then let's go out and see a game, then we can have an appreciation for the game on television. It's a difficult thing to get over, but I don't think anybody does it better than us."

Clement and Gary Thorne will work the opener of ESPN's abbreviated, 14-game schedule -- tonight's New York Rangers-Buffalo Sabres game, before which the Stanley Cup banner will be unfurled from the Madison Square Garden rafters.

Milbury, meanwhile, will analyze from the studio, along with host Steve Levy. Bill Pidto will perform studio host duties for ESPN2, and will anchor the network's nightly hockey studio show.

In addition, the networks plan to copy the "Fox Box" concept, by running the score and the clock continuously in the upper right corner of the screen, reserving the left side for power play and penalty information.

NBA returns to NBC

The other major winter professional sports league, the NBA, kicks off its weekly over-the-air schedule on NBC (Channel 11) Sunday with a doubleheader, as the world champion Houston Rockets visit the Chicago Bulls at 1, followed by the Phoenix-Orlando meeting at 3:30 p.m.

Lead analyst Matt Guokas, the former Magic coach, continues his second season alongside Marv Albert, and despite Orlando's early success, Guokas says he has no second thoughts about leaving a team many are picking to win it all.

"It was the right decision for me," said Guokas. "I'm thrilled for the Magic that their luck has shown so brightly in them getting Anfernee Hardaway and Horace Grant. But I'm happy and I haven't looked back."

College hoops smorgasbord

There are lots of choices for college basketball viewing this weekend, with two men's/women's doubleheaders. Tomorrow, CBS (Channel 13) has the Purdue-Penn State women's game at 1 p.m., followed by the Syracuse-Providence men's game at 3. On Sunday, the Maryland women travel to Chapel Hill to meet third-ranked North Carolina on HTS, and the Maryland men play North Carolina State at Raleigh at 1:30 on Channel 54. Channel 13 carries the Michigan-Michigan State game at 2 p.m Sunday, and Georgia Tech-Virginia rounds out the day at 4 p.m. on Channel 54.

And finally. . . .

For those who haven't seen enough of Orioles owner Peter Angelos in the last week, "Wide World of Sports" (tomorrow, 4:30, Channel 2) offers up a profile, reported by Sports Illustrated's Tim Kurkjian (a former Sun baseball writer), along with the program's choice for Athlete of the Year and figure skating.

And speaking of figure skating (and these days, who isn't), TBS has an exhibition, "Elvis Stojko on Ice" tomorrow night at 8, with Maryland's own Jim Simpson on the call.

Then, to kick off Super Bowl hype, former receiver James Lofton will give his all-pro selections, as well as introduce his receiver and running back ratings, which resemble the league's quarterback ratings on CNN's "NFL Preview Sunday" at 11:30 a.m., with Fox airing this year's All-Madden team at 6 p.m. (Channel 45).

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