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Davidson: NHL Has Lots to be Excited About

by Shawn Roarke / St. Louis Blues
PALM BEACH, FLA. -- John Davidson has spent the better portion of four decades involved in the NHL, joining the League as a player and now serving as president of the St. Louis Blues after a distinguished broadcasting career.

Since he arrived in St. Louis as a rookie goalie in 1973, Davidson has been among the vanguard of those trying to raise the sport's profile in the United States. For Davidson, who was born in hockey-mad Ottawa, Ont., the struggle to grow the game in the U.S. has not always been easy, but he believes all the hard work by pioneers like himself is starting to pay off in spades.

"It's nice to see the NHL evolve over the last few seasons to where people genuinely want us," Davidson said Tuesday at the Board of Governors Meetings.

Davidson was talking specifically about the anticipated bidding war among several entities for rights to televise the sport in America when the current deals with Versus and NBC expire at the end of the 2010-11 season; but judging from the positive vibes coming out of these meetings, it appears that the game is in more demand than at any time in recent memory.

"It's pretty vibrant right now," Davidson said.

He needs to look no further than his own market for validation.

The Blues, fueled by a core of young players that includes Erik Johnson, David Perron, TJ Oshie and David Backes, as well as goalie Jaroslav Halak, have made serious inroads into the consciousness of the region's sports fans.

The team's television ratings are up significantly. The youth hockey scene is as more active than ever, producing a higher-caliber player each year. Davidson points to the fact that a St. Louis peewee team -- coached by Blues legend Al MacInnis, now a member of the team's front office -- went to Quebec and won a prestigious tournament there. He also says that more and more teen-aged players in the St. Louis area are now earning college scholarships to play hockey.

Plus, Dave Checketts, the Blues' owner, is close to ending his search for new investors. According to Davidson, the interest to invest in the team shows that the Blues are becoming a more viable member of the city's business community.

"He's been pretty busy with it and there's been plenty of interest," Davidson said of Checketts' quest to find new partners, one Checketts said Tuesday is near its finish. "St. Louis is a good hockey market. There is a lot of corporate interest. He's had a lot of very good people very interested in being a part of it."

But it is not just the renaissance in St. Louis that has Davidson excited.

It is also the high profile the game is enjoying in so many American markets, a fact he believes will be borne out when several broadcast networks enter into the fray to get a piece of the American rights in the upcoming TV negotiations.

"To have the game be in this position, for us to have people that run networks be very interested in it, it makes me feel good because we fought the fight for a long time in the United States, knowing it's a great game," said Davidson, who spent more than two decades in the TV business before joining the Blues front office in 2006.

"All I know is there is genuine interest."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman admitted as much in his closing press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Bettman said that the League is currently in an exclusive negotiating period with Versus, the League's American cable partner, at the moment. A similar window with NBC, the American major network partner, follows shortly after. But then, other entities can enter the process.

There is much speculation that several over-the-air and cable networks will make inquiries.

"What's different is we're a much more significant player in the media landscape than we've been for a whole host of reasons," Bettman said. "It's the game on the ice, the competitive balance, variety of thing we're doing to engage our fans, the presence of digital media. Our ratings are stronger. We had a terrific year last year, including during the playoffs where we set all sorts of records for us. The last few years we're in a good place; better than we've been on a whole host of platforms and measurables. I think there's interest in us more than there's ever been and that's a good thing."

Davidson, the broadcast vet, says it is the product, more than anything else, which has drawn the interest of not only the fans, but the television networks.

"I think our game, with the way it's evolved, we went through a long period of time where our players had to learn not to hook and hold," Davidson said. "Now the game is fast. The younger players are fun to watch.

"There are a lot of younger players where the fans in their buildings are watching them grow right in front of their eyes," he said. "With myself being around as long as I was trying to sell the game in the States as a broadcaster, to see it coming to a real good form of fruition is pretty gratifying."
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