When the OLN network launched its hockey coverage in the fall of 2005, the first reaction from many observers was, uh, oh, this could be a long season. The audio was erratic and the studio set was barebones.
Fortunately for NHL fans and OLN, everything has improved as the Stanley Cup playoffs near. Further good news: OLN hopes to air playoff games every night.
"We had four or five weeks basically to prepare," Marc Fein, OLN's senior vice president of programming and production, said from his Stamford, Conn., office. "We had no time to build a (studio) set. You're only as strong as your weakest link. But everyone pulled together and got the right people on board. We're pretty happy and proud, especially recently, how the telecasts have been."
Fein, who previously worked for Fox SportsNet in Los Angeles, has recruited top personnel such as the lead game twosome of Mike Emrick and John Davidson. Bill Clement, the former Flyers center, has seized on his first studio hosting job and run with it.
"We had a lot of greenhorns, including me in my position," Clement said.
Clement has years of TV experience as a game analyst, but he's new to the studio host role.
"When I started this," Clement said, "I got a call from one of the higher-ups at ESPN. He said, `Don't expect things to happen overnight. It took us three years, when we got hockey back in the early 1990s, before we felt we had the product where we wanted it.'
"We were like an expansion team that, all of a sudden, has become a playoff threat right away. I'm thrilled at the progress we've made."
Working with Fein behind the scenes are qualified people like Mike Baker, OLN's coordinating producer for hockey, and Bryan Cooper, the lead road producer. Baker handled hockey for ESPN. Cooper is a longtime producer of Flyers games for Comcast SportsNet.
While Clement was ready to try hosting a studio show, he knew it would be a challenge. "It's like a forward learning how to play defense, or a forward learning how to be a goaltender," he said. "The demands are completely different."
Hosting 52 hockey games for NBC's coverage during the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy helped Clement in his work for OLN. Clement's colleagues in the studio include another ex-Flyers player, Keith Jones; Neil Smith, former general manager of the New York Rangers; and ex-NHL defenseman Brian Engblom. Jones has developed into an excellent postgame analyst for Flyers games on Comcast SportsNet.
"When you put guys together, it's like that pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove: it's got to simmer," Clement said. "As we've gotten to know and like and trust one other, the chemistry is fantastic."
Clement said the OLN studio crew is encouraged to offer candid commentary.
"Sometimes, there's just no way to sugarcoat something," he said. "If that's a bad play, or you think the team is bad, or you think the coach is making bad decisions, it has to be said. People want to hear strong opinions. They might not like them, but they'll come back to hear more of them.
"The guys at the game are there to deliver the product on the ice. We're in the studio to analyze and editorialize."
The ESPN executive who advised Clement and OLN to be patient spoke from experience. NHL ratings on OLN are really low, as in, hand-me-the-binoculars-so-I-can-see-them low. Through 53 games, the average rating is .2 (one rating point on OLN equals 639,560 households). The highest rated game on OLN this season was the Flyers-Rangers opener that did a .43.
The good news for OLN is, the ratings are up 100 percent compared to the .1 average for OLN programming in the same time periods a year ago.
"The ratings, in general, are where we anticipated them to be," Fein said. "We think there is a lot of growth potential. We feel the playoffs will draw in even more viewers."
As ESPN and the other networks that have carried the NHL have learned, hockey is a tough sell nationally on television. In some areas of the United States, hockey is huge. In others, the reaction is "Huh?"
Watching hockey in an arena is one of the greatest shows in sports, but transferring that special atmosphere to TV is difficult.
"It's such an amazing and great sport to watch in person," Fein said. "All networks have had that challenge: how do you translate the in arena experience to the TV set?"
Another problem for OLN is, sports fans aren't accustomed to watching the network. Also, its location on most cable systems isn't among the more convenient lower numbers (it's 68 on my system).
"When you're a higher number than people are used to watching, it's tough," Clement said. "It's difficult to find. (But) I think (OLN's) relationship with the fans is going to take a huge step forward in the playoffs."
Another reason OLN people are hopeful that the NHL ratings will improve is, next season OLN will be more involved with getting more appealing games for its exclusive regional telecasts. This season, the schedule was already set when the deal between the league and network was announced.
Hockey fans should be thankful that Comcast-owned OLN stepped in on short notice to carry games this season. That OLN wants to continue improving its telecasts also is good to hear.
Forsberg still a force
Clement said Flyers fans shouldn't worry about Peter Forsberg, providing he is healthy. Forsberg has been bothered by groin ailments.
"He still has his A game, and watch out in the playoffs, " Clement said. "He knows his body and he keeps some in reserve in the tank. He knows you don't win the Stanley Cup in the regular season. You position yourself to try to win it. Of all the players I've ever seen, he knows how to turn it on when it counts the most."
According to Clement, the Flyers chances of winning the Stanley Cup "are as good as anybody. I'm not worried about anything concerning the Flyers except their consistency. They seem, from one period to the next, or one game to the next, to look like a different team. It's hard to win in the playoffs unless you can become far more consistent, especially defensively."
After listing the many formidable opponents in the Eastern Conference, Clement said, "When the dominoes start falling in the playoffs, sometimes they fall in weird ways. The big thing is, get out of the first round. Then you never know what's going to happen. By then, you're usually a far more consistent team than you were going in."
Shootouts provide buzz
I know the NHL had to do make some dramatic changes following the lockout to make the game more interesting. I know the fans like the shootout, but I still think it is an artificial way to end games.
When I relayed this opinion to Clement, he informed me that I am "old school." He said, "Anybody that doesn't like the shootout cares more about their taste than the overall sport."
He said fans stay in their seats during shootouts as opposed to leaving early. "It creates a buzz," Clement said. "Our sport had no buzz at all for years."
Clement recently was doing voice-over work for a video game. "They threw in a game that I had called: the three overtime game when Detroit won the Stanley Cup against Carolina in 2002. Yes, there was so much hard, tough play along the boards. But nothing happened. There were hardly any scoring chances, nothing close to a breakaway, clusters of players everywhere on the ice. It was so hard to do the games (then). It's way better now."
Wisely, the NHL will not use shootouts in the playoffs.
Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.
Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.