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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

The NHL is back and better than ever. So is its national television coverage.

It all started October 5th at 2 p.m. when NBC presented its NHL Fresh Ice: 2005-06 Season Preview and continues throughout the regular season and playoffs on OLN and NBC.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and phenom Sidney Crosby will lead things off for NBC’s Fresh Ice show. The NBC crew of Mike “Doc” Emrick, John Davidson and Pierre Maguire visited Penguins training camp on Sept. 22 when the Penguins were in Wilkes-Barre. Davidson’s chat with Mario Lemieux and Crosby will highlight Saturday’s telecast, which features pieces on Flyers goaltender Robert Esche experimenting with NBC’s “goalie cam” which will debut in January, Wayne Gretzky coaching in Phoenix, the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and a visit to Detroit with Brendan Shanahan.

“The Pittsburgh Penguins have so many veterans – this team isn’t just looking to Sidney Crosby to turn them around and make them a great team. I hope that Sidney improves. Let nature take its course as he becomes a star or a superstar. This kid is something special,” Davidson said. “He is a very, very special athlete and person. For some of us who have been around the league a long time, when someone like this comes around, we all count our blessings and hope he makes it because he is something special.”

Bill Clement, who will serve as a studio host for NBC and OLN, did not make the trip to Wilkes-Barre with the rest of the NBC crew to see the Penguins, but he knows Crosby is something special.

Sidney Crosby is an interesting kid because he is a composite of different guys. Part of him reminds me of Tampa’s Martin St. Louis because he plays with such determination and edge. He has the explosiveness of Paul Kariya. He has incredible vision, so he’s probably going to be a better playmaker than those players are.”

“The great thing with Sidney going to Pittsburgh is Mario Lemieux – the greatest mentor any young kid could dream of having and all the guys (general manager) Craig (Patrick) brought in. It’s a great place for him. He is so marketable. Not only was the league looking for someone who is the “Next One” on the ice, but the NHL was missing someone with the smile of Sidney Crosby, the personality of Sidney Crosby and the accessibility of Sidney Crosby. I think the NHL is ready to hit a home run, so to speak, with Sidney and the league.”

Throughout the season, OLN will televise 58 regular-season games and postseason action. Like NBC, OLN is trying to show the NHL in a different way with Emrick, Davidson and Clement as part of its broadcasting team as well.

“With the season close to getting started, we’re very excited to get going,” said Marc Fein, OLN’s senior vice president of programming and production. “We have a great team of talent. We’re going to take a slightly different approach. We’re going to give more access to players and coaches, new camera angles, zooming in closer and deck cams.”

All parties agree that hockey is a difficult game to translate from arena to television and Clement points out that trying to follow the puck is the No. 1 complaint from viewers.

“Our coverage, at times, will be closer to the action so the puck is looks closer. If the puck was the size of a basketball or football, we wouldn’t have a problem. High-Definition TV is the answer for hockey.”

OLN will broadcast some games in HD, but it also helps to solve puck visibility issues with tighter shots on the ice.

“Our philosophy is going to be back to the future, so to speak,” said Mike Baker, OLN’s coordinating producer. “With the way graphics and wider scoreboards have evolved over the past year, you get anywhere from four to 12 rows of stands and fans in your picture. I have measured TV screens and nearly 40 percent of screens was fans. We’re going to reduce that and focus our cameras closer to the ice. If the puck is 40 percent bigger because we have zoomed in, that means it’s 40 percent easier to see and 40 percent better.”

In addition, OLN’s studio will be outfitted with a special “Demonstration Zone” where Clement and Keith Jones, OLN’s other studio host, can demonstrate on-ice maneuvers and happenings – much like the field-simulation sets found on baseball or NFL shows.

“There are so many things that happen so fast on the ice that beg for slow-motion demonstration,” Clement said. “We really plan on doing that. It’s countless the number of things we can do. We want to have fun with it and we want people to learn. That’s going to be beauty of the demo area – we can show people what is really going on and show young people how they are done correctly.”

Also, OLN is going to personalize its broadcasts with more stories about who the players are as opposed to just game description – much like how the network treats its Tour de France coverage.

“We’re really not looking to reinvent the wheel. We’re looking to put air in the tires,” Fein said. “The game is very hard to translate to TV and there is only so much you can do to try to make that happen. We have confidence in the things we’ve been able to do to translate cycling, which is a difficult sport, to the fans.

“Certainly, Lance Armstrong’s success has helped out, but I think we’ve really upgraded our Tour coverage through storytelling and zooming in more on the action. By building personalities of players, hopefully, we’ll bring more people to the game.”

OLN plans to enhance the NHL’s personalities with microphones on players and coaches during games.

“We’re hoping to mic between two or three players per game and maybe a coach,” Baker said. “We want the games and the players to be entertaining, but we don’t want to overwhelm people with stuff, either.”

Clement and Davidson believe the NHL rules changes, which will promote more offense, will work wonders in promoting the game as well.

“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am for the start of the season,” Clement said. “The NHL made so many sweeping changes to let its players do what they do best – shoot, skate and score. It’s going to open up the game and the biggest step for us at OLN is what happens on the ice.”

Added Davidson: “The timing is perfect with what’s going with the rule changes. I don’t think we would have had a chance with the way the game was stymied before. We were suffocating our game. I think we should be getting back to that free-flowing, offensive style. I think you’re going to have a multitude of 50-goal scorers – maybe even a defenseman with 100 points. It’s going to be about speed and scoring chances.”

Emrick, who lived in Beaver Falls from 1969-1971, has called NHL action for 25 years. He is thrilled with what he has seen so far.

“There are times I had to look and see if a team was actually on the power play because the flow, especially in the attacking zone, looked like a power play but it wasn’t one,” he said. “I think the flow of game has really impressed me. We can now have players show their speed.”

OLN begins its coverage Oct. 5 with the New York Rangers at the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins open the same night, but that game can be found on Fox-Sports Net Pittsburgh, which will carry 66 of the team’s regular-season games with UPN carrying six more. OLN will broadcast seven Penguins games, while NBC is scheduled to air the Penguins three times.

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