Hockey's best TV days may be no more than slap shot away


The fact that our two major winter sports have reached their respective championship series makes for an inevitable comparison.

The NBA is, of course, riding high, with its marquee player, Michael Jordan, and marquee team, the Chicago Bulls, in its ultimate showcase, bringing strong ratings for NBC.

Meanwhile, the NHL plays the little league that could, continuing a solid if not spectacular climb on the way to imprinting itself in the American consciousness as a sport with broadening appeal.

Both Fox and ESPN report significant rises in ratings over last year throughout what has been an intriguing postseason. Fox's coverage of Game 1 of the Florida-Colorado series Tuesday was the second-highest rated hockey broadcast ever, and ESPN says its ratings are up 42 percent from last season.

"We've gone through a lot of years where people were laughing at us," said Fox analyst John Davidson. "The perception of this sport has changed, and people around the country are starting to appreciate the game."

Well, maybe not everyone. NBC's Marv Albert, for years the voice of both the New York Rangers and Knicks, scoffs at the notion that hockey and basketball are comparable in the level of fan interest, saying that the NHL's starting numbers are so low that virtually any increase would look dramatic.

"Sometimes the NHL likes to skew their rating in a very impractical way. You're dealing with such a low figure," Albert said earlier this week. "I hope the NHL does better, but sometimes there's a tendency among those who push it to skew."

Granted, the 3.7 overnight rating and 7 share the NHL posted for Tuesday's opener is a fraction of the 16.8/31 rating for Game 1 of the Chicago-Seattle series and the 48 million viewers -- both records for the first game of the series. But let's not forget that 15 years ago, the clinching game of the NBA championship series was shown on tape delay.

However, after a few mega-superstars and some relentless marketing thrown in for good measure, the NBA is a proven television product. If hockey follows a similar formula, its best TV days could be ahead of it.

To the hoop

Even before Chicago spanked Seattle in Game 1 on Wednesday, most observers gave the SuperSonics precious little chance even to slow the Bulls' inexorable march to the title, much less beat them.

But Albert's partners, Bill Walton and Matt Guokas, see the series as a saga, rather than a miniseries.

"A lot of this depends on how Seattle comes into these games," said Guokas, pointing to turnovers and rebounding as keys. "If they can conquer those two hurdles, they can stay in the game, and then it becomes a matter of who makes shots down the stretch."

Games 2 airs tonight at 9, before the scene shifts to Seattle for Game 3 on Sunday at 7 p.m. Television coverage locally appears on Channel 11, with radio broadcasts on WWLG (1360 AM), featuring the ever-annoying Brent Musburger.

On the chilled aqua

The Florida-Colorado Stanley Cup series seems better suited for a New Year's Day bowl game. The two teams carry little of the tradition that longtime hockey fans appreciate.

"The incentive to tune in is to potentially see a new national star born, to see great individual performances and to see two teams that really merit their positions. They got there knocking off all of the big boys, especially Florida," said ESPN's Barry Melrose.

Of course, besides watching the defense of Florida challenge the offense of Colorado, it's interesting for hockey fans, casual and serious, to compare the broadcasting styles of the two networks, from the flash and glitter of Fox, which gets Game 3 tomorrow (Channel 45, 8 p.m.), to the meat-and-potatoes approach of ESPN (Monday, 8 p.m.). Both also will be on WWLG.

Weekend quick hitters

Normally, we would have disdain for summertime ice skating, but CBS (Channel 13) repeats a moving and well-worth watching tribute to fallen figure skater Sergei Grinkov, "Celebration of a Life," tonight at 8.

Tomorrow's Orioles-Chicago game (Channel 45, 1 p.m.) is not only the hometown team's initial Fox appearance, but also the second network telecast for producer Carol Langley, the first woman to produce major-league games on national television. Later in the day, the Belmont Stakes closes out this year's Triple Crown (Channel 2, 4: 30 p.m.)

Finally, we note the presence of two new entries to the local talk show roster, both of which feature former Colt Tom Matte as co-host. Matte joins Bruce Cunningham for tomorrow's "Saturday NFL Show," on WJFK (1300 AM) at 11 a.m., then hooks up with former Colt Bruce Laird on Monday night for the "McCafferty's Sports Hour" on WCBM (680 AM) at 6 p.m.

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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