WASHINGTON -- All right, a show of hands of all the people who proclaimed hockey as the next great boom sport four years ago. After a lackluster regular season, not to mention the dreadful performances of American and Canadian men's players in the Winter Olympics, there aren't so many bravehearts left in the room, eh?
One guy who is keeping his hands raised high is ESPN's John Saunders, who is the host of the channel's coverage of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight from the Capital Club restaurant here at the MCI Center.
In Saunders' mind, reports of hockey's demise are greatly exaggerated.
"If you look at all the different markets that minor-league hockey is in, it's doing quite well. There's sellout hockey in Lexington, Ky., at Rupp Arena. Who would have thought that? It's amazing how fast the sport is growing," said Saunders.
If all that's true, what's with the perception that hockey is either in trouble or at least foundering?
Saunders, whose busy plate includes college basketball and football hosting duties for ESPN and ABC, as well as doing XTC play-by-play for the Toronto Raptors, says hockey's difficulties have something to do with the very medium he works in.
"The problem is it doesn't translate as well to television as the other sports do, and I think that because of that, a lot of people miscalculate how popular it is. It is a tremendously popular sport," said Saunders. "It's just that we've got to get people somehow into the building, because once you come into a game, you're hooked."
Saunders -- a former Channel 2 sports anchor who left Baltimore in 1986 for ESPN, but keeps in touch with in-laws and former WMAR colleagues who live in the area -- has seen some of that growth in the Washington area with the rise of the Capitals.
"I've always thought Washington over the 24 years they've been in the league, has done not a remarkable, but an admirable job as far as the efforts they've made [in] putting the team together," said Saunders. "For whatever reason, they come up short in the playoffs, but you can feel the excitement here."
The Capitals are likely to need all the excitement they can get tonight to stave off elimination at the hands of the Red Wings. Saunders and Barry Melrose are hosts for "Quest for the Cup" at 7: 30 tonight, followed by Game 4 at 8.
Clearing the bases
We gave you the Orioles broadcast ratings numbers to date last week, and they were none too pretty. Well, the cable numbers are in and they aren't much better.
Not counting last night's Orioles-Yankees telecast, games on Home Team Sports are averaging a 5.3 rating, a 29 percent drop from the 7.5 rating for the 1997 season.
By the way, did you catch that ESPN SportsZone poll the other night? Nearly half of the 15,000 voters selected the Orioles as the most disappointing team in baseball at this point in the season.
Meanwhile, HTS has announced that Tim Walbert, a former free-lance producer who also did stints at Channel 13 and Washington's Channel 9, has taken over as director of production, succeeding Chris Glass, who left two weeks ago to become executive producer at Florida's Sunshine Network.
With the 23.0 rating and 36 share for Sunday's Game 6, and Friday's 19.8/37 Nielsen national rating for Game 5, this year's NBA championship series is likely to be the highest rated in the history of the league, and the NBC folks just couldn't be happier.
ESPN should also be tickled pink by the performance of, among others, Dan Patrick, whose post-game interviews with Karl Malone and Michael Jordan were laudatory in tone, but also insightful, as Patrick got the two competitors to open up without playing the role of grinning lackey, as some others have done.
Speaking of which, ESPN announced recently that it has signed "SportsCenter" anchor Stuart Scott to a new, multi-year contract.
Pub Date: 6/16/98