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Lukewarm ratings for June hockey


The calendar says that summer officially starts tomorrow, which means thoughts of ice should be confined to the number of cubes in your glass of lemonade.

But as the thermometer's mercury makes its relentless climb, the focus of the sports world turns this week to athletics that are best served cold, particularly hockey.

To be certain, hockey, which after a thrilling 1993-94 season suffered a lockout this year, has not reached the popularity level of the big three American sports of baseball, basketball and football. But, in small yet perceptible ways, interest in hockey is growing.

"I anticipated that we'd have a lot of work to do, but when I'm standing in the Meadowlands parking lot watching 10 different roller hockey games and in California seeing kids learn the game and love it, I know it will happen," said ESPN game analyst Bill Clement.

In a weird stroke of luck, the NHL is actually getting something of a boost from the fact that because of the lockout, the schedule might keep the Stanley Cup going until June 30, long past when pucks, sticks and Zambonis are usually put into storage.

The puckheads also caught a huge break when the Houston Rockets dispatched the Orlando Magic early, meaning no head-to-head competition with the NBA.

So far, the postseason ratings have been good. ESPN's numbers for the conference champion series were up 64 percent from last year, thanks in no small measure to a clause in its revamped contract that gave the network exclusivity for both series, rather than being blacked out in the home markets.

And Fox, whose numbers in its first season of hockey have ebbed and flowed, surged for Saturday night's first prime-time action, as the opening game of the Detroit-New Jersey series got a 4.0 rating and 9 share of 33 Nielsen markets.

The ratings varied from outlet to outlet, from a whopping 18.0/33 in Detroit and a 7.4/15 in New York, the other presumed home market, to a 1.0/2 in Indianapolis and 1.6/4 in Los Angeles. In Baltimore, the game did a 2.6/5 for Channel 45, just a shade below the 2.7/6 posted in Washington, where an NHL franchise is located.

As for the competition, Clement isn't so sure that New Jersey's vaunted neutral zone trap, where the Devils' forwards try to corral the puck to the boards to force a turnover, makes for the most entertaining hockey. But it might get New Jersey, which has a 1-0 lead in the series, its first championship in franchise history.

"I'm anti-trap because it takes a lot of the fun and excitement out of the game," said Clement. "If the flow isn't there, we'll make sure that the marquee players are spotlighted, so we can at least bring the viewer in to see these athletes."

ESPN takes over weeknight Cup telecasts starting tonight, with Game 2. Clement and Gary Thorne will have the game call at 8 p.m., preceded by the 30-minute "Quest for the Cup" show at 7:30.

Let's talk about it

Last night's ESPN's "Outside the Lines" special on the rise of sports talk radio managed to do what most of the talk programs themselves hardly ever do: provide context, clarity and information.

"Sports Talk Mania" provided an eye-opening look at an area of broadcasting that in many areas is out of control, with uninformed opinion at times being passed from host to listener and back with hardly a thought of how what is said will affect the people and games.

In one scary example, a Cincinnati talk host broadcast an unsubstantiated rumor about the supposed extra-marital exploits of a former Reds pitcher, interviewed the woman reported to be involved with the player, but never talked to the player and didn't see the need to do so.

If it is repeated, this show is must-see viewing for sports talk hosts and callers alike.

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