WILKES-BARRE – It’s getting hotter in the NHL.
The players have the fever. So do the coaches. If you set foot inside a local arena, the fans have it, too. And, it’s quickly developing the intensity of a raging forest fire.
You know hockey – the coolest game on earth – is hot when a major United States television network descends upon a small city in Northeastern Pennsylvania – with the Stanley Cup.
In a highly unique occurrence, a crew from NBC Sports came to Wilkes-Barre on Thursday to shoot footage for an NHL preview show Oct. 1 at 2 p.m. The half-hour show will discuss the various rules changes the NHL implemented for this season. Pittsburgh Penguins stars Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby will be featured as well.
“It’s the story of the offseason and the re-launch – the future is here with one of the legends of the game,” said Sam Flood, the coordinating producer for NBC Sports. “It’s very fortunate for the league, very fortunate for Pittsburgh and very fortunate for Sidney that he is here with Mario as a mentor.
“I know this is something we’re very excited about it. The NHL wanted to do this and we are working with them to make sure the stories are right out there from the beginning.”
The Penguins’ win of the NHL Draft Lottery gave them the chance to draft Crosby – proclaimed by many to be the best prospect to enter the NHL since Lemieux. Crosby’s arrival served as the catalyst for a furious offseason that saw the team acquire Sergei Gonchar, John LeClair, Ziggy Palffy, Jocelyn Thibault, Lyle Odelein, Andre Roy and Steve Poapst. It turned the Penguins from a last-place team into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
“Pittsburgh couldn’t have done a better job. They’ve really figured it out. Mario is clearly being a leader and doing the right things and making sure it’s done the right way,” Flood said. “When he came into the league, he went through that experience on an island – he was the star on and off the ice. Sidney has a guy next to that he can look to and learn from. I think it’s a great situation for the NHL.”
NBC Sports will present six weeks of Saturday afternoon regular-season action: Jan. 14, Jan. 21, Jan. 28, Feb. 4, April 8 and April 15. The Penguins will appear Jan. 21 when Lemieux and Crosby welcome cross-state rival Philadelphia at Mellon Arena.
“It’s great to see the Pittsburgh market come back. It has such a rich history,” Flood said. “It had a little down period, but now it’s back in a huge way. It’s going to be the focal point.”
Three NBC Sports on-air hockey personalities were in Wilkes-Barre for the shoot – John Davidson, Mike Emrick and Pierre Maguire. The three sat on the players’ bench with the Stanley Cup during their shoot. Later, Davidson interviewed Lemieux and Crosby on the ice while leaning on one of the goals.
“It’s going to be exciting. What’s great is that we have a team within NBC that are hockey nuts. The day that this hockey deal was signed, there was so much joy that you wouldn’t believe it,” Flood said. “After all these years I finally get to produce the sport I love the most. So, I am really looking forward to trying to showcase the game and get the hockey fan back to being part of a national package and watching us every Saturday on NBC. When we launch our coverage of the NHL in January, we’re really looking forward to showcasing this league in a whole new way.”
The NHL’s new national TV deals with the Outdoor Life Network and NBC will give fans a different look this year.
“I am over-the-top excited,” said Maguire, a former Penguins scout and coach. “I am excited about what we’re going to do at NBC and I am thrilled to death about what we’re going to do at TSN in Canada and I am very excited about the OLN package. I am really, really excited about hockey being back. Our sport is going to be awesome.”
A work stoppage wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season, so many are eager to see the league take shape after a bevy of rules changes and player movement.
“It was catastrophic, in some ways. Sometimes you need that to rebuild properly. I think even if the league came back and started in the middle of February or something, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Davidson said. “I think we have a new look. Certainly, offense is the key to the new look on the ice. Off the ice, there is a new look, too, because a lot of players changed addresses – big, big-name players wound up in cities where we didn’t expect that to happen. There’s a lot of youth in certain cities. Retirements have opened the doors for other players. The Pittsburgh story is a huge story. With Crosby here and their willingness to go out and sign some people like LeClair, Palffy, Gonchar – it’s really something special.”
Emrick, who will serve as the main play-by-play announcer, is thrilled to see Crosby in the NHL and in Pittsburgh.
“I think we need players to be excited about. With the last lockout in 1995, we lost 154 players that never came back. They wound up going to Europe or retiring,” he said. “That cost us a lot. It is costing us some of the older players now with one whole season missed. Our league is getting younger and faster. For that reason, Crosby is the right guy at the right time for a lot of us. It helps us that Wayne (Gretzky) is back on the scene as a coach (in Phoenix), but coaches don’t attract a following like players do.
“So, this is the perfect time for us to have someone to be excited about.”