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HDTV makes NHL sport with a view

PITTSBURGH -- A playing surface more than twice the size of a basketball court. Rapid and sometimes dizzying player movement on and off the ice. Even greater speed as players chase an elusive object barely larger than the palm of one's hand.

The elements that help make hockey one of the most pleasurable sports to watch in person for millions often don't translate to TV viewers who sample the sport, but don't go back because they simply don't understand what's happening.

Don't think the NHL, saddled with the lowest ratings of the four major pro team sports, isn't listening -- and watching.

That's why the league is excited by the gradual but gaining-momentum move to high-definition television, which offers a picture exponentially sharper and more lifelike than that on traditional analog sets.

The NHL's strategy is simple: If viewers see the game much better than they ever could before, they're more likely to give hockey a chance.

"It's the biggest innovation in televising hockey in the last 50 years," NHL senior vice president Doug Perlman said. "It takes watching hockey to the next level. When you watch a game on a high-definition set, you really appreciate the game that much better."

So, while there are only about 10 million HDTV sets in use in the United States and less than a million in Canada, nearly one-quarter of the NHL's games are being shown in high-definition this season.

That's a greater percentage than the NFL (only three regular-season telecasts per week last season) and Major League Baseball (no HDTV games in the playoffs or World Series last season). It's one the NHL is determined to build in future seasons -- though, of course, there is no guarantee there will be a 2004-05 season, given the league's labor problems.

"We're already seeing a huge impact on hockey," Perlman said.

The league estimates 330 games will be shown nationally or locally in HDTV this season by ESPN, ABC, Canada's CBC, TSN, 10 local sports channels, and HDNet, an all-high-definition channel available via satellite and cable that is carrying 65 NHL games.

Canada is enjoying its national sport in HDTV for the first time, starting with the Montreal-Edmonton outdoor game in November -- "a real page in Canadian history," according to CBC executive producer Joel Darling.

Last month's Montreal-Toronto game also was shown in HDTV as part of hockey day in Canada, a daylong marathon of three games involving all six Canadian teams.

Why hockey is embracing the technology becomes readily apparent to those watching a game in HDTV for the first time. Not only can the puck be seen -- traditionally, the No. 1 complaint among those who struggle to follow the sport on TV -- the game's strategy also unfolds better.

The 16x9 aspect ratio inherent to HDTV sets is nearly identical to that of a movie screen, rather than the square-box 4x3 ratio of analog sets.

"You can see the player tapping for the puck in the circle," Perlman said. "You can see a player driving to the net from the boards. A hockey game really fits the HDTV screen. It's easier to watch the flow of the game and the strategy."

The sound is improved, too, replicating that heard in an arena as skate blades cut into the ice and players slam off the boards. The large amount of cable, satellite or over-the-air bandwidth needed to carry an HDTV signal also accommodates six-channel surround sound, the same technology used in movie theaters.

Ken Holsgrove, a Detroit-based audio-video consultant who moderates a popular high-definition forum on the Internet, recently had friends over to watch a Red Wings-Avalanche game in HDTV. One friend, accustomed to viewing an ancient 25-inch set, was startled by what he saw and is contemplating an HDTV set purchase.

"He and the other guys said it was just like sitting behind the glass at Joe Louis Arena," Holsgrove said. "It was a sense of being there."

That's exactly the reaction the NHL is hoping to get as more viewers make the transition from the TV technology of their grandparents' time to HDTV. According to industry analysts, an additional 9 million HDTV sets are expected to be sold in the United States by the end of 2005 and nearly half of the nation's TV homes could own one within five years.

It's a wonder the NHL isn't giving away HDTV sets with every season-ticket purchase. The league, though, is encouraging its right holders to show as many games in high-definition as possible.

While hockey's TV ratings are holding up in many traditional markets, fans are tuning out games not involving their local teams. Midway through the season, the NHL's ratings on ESPN (.5, or one-half of one percent of all US TV homes) and ESPN2 (.2) were at infomercial levels.

The low ratings are handcuffing the league as it negotiates its next US TV contract, one that may wind up being worth only half that of its current $600 million, five-year deal with ESPN and ABC.

"If you can make the experience more like that [of attending a game], it has to help hockey," Holsgrove said. "What I've found is when people get an HDTV set, they watch events they ordinarily wouldn't watch and get interested in them.

"To me, the Westminster dog show was like that," he said. "You could see every little detail in every dog, and you found yourself rooting, "C'mon, Fido!" Once more people have access to it [HDTV], it could help hockey's popularity."

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