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NHL strikes TV deal with ESPN

NEW YORK -- The National Hockey League, taking a more aggressive marketing role under president-elect Gil Stein, announced Wednesday night it had struck a conditional five-year deal with ESPN to televise professional hockey through the 1996-97 season.

The series of agreements grants ESPN exclusive national coverage of the NHL starting with the 1992-93 season, and the cable network has an option to extend the term of that domestic agreement for four more years. The deal also grants ESPN exclusive international television distribution, excluding Canada, for the next five years.

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Both parties refused to reveal financial terms of the agreement, but it reportedly is worth $80 million, a bonanza compared to the one-year $5.5 million deal the NHL signed with SportsChannel America on the eve of the 1991-92 campaign.

The league's new TV contract calls for ESPN to televise up to 25 regular-season games to its domestic audience this coming season and 37 playoff games, including the entire Stanley Cup Final. The majority of ESPN's regular-season games will be televised on Friday nights.

'This is an agreement that works for everyone -- especially hockey fans nationwide,' said Steve Bornstein, ESPN president and chief executive officer. 'We are delighted to resume season-long coverage of the NHL, culminating with the league's crown jewel series. Fans will be able to follow the NHL the ESPN way -- with important matchups, a focus on star players and the network's trademark studio wraparounds and electronic cut-ins.'

What the NHL has been seeking in a new TV deal since Stein took over for longtime president John Ziegler is a wider U.S. viewing audience, which SportsChannel America promised when it took over broadcasting hockey games four years ago but failed to achieve. Before switching to SportsChannel, the NHL had a deal with ESPN from 1985 to 1988. ESPN also showed select games from 1980 to 1982.

'The NHL is excited to be returning to ESPN after a four-year absence,' Stein said.

ESPN ranks as America's largest cable network, reaching 61.4 million homes, 66 percent of U.S. homes with television. SportsChannel America reaches 20 million to 25 million homes.

Stein said the NHL Board of Governors approved the deal in a Wednesday morning conference call.

'I would say they're very satsified,' he said.

ESPN's first telecast will be on opening night, Tuesday, Oct. 6, when the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins host the Philadelphia Flyers. The game will pit the league's biggest current star in Penguins center Mario Lemieux against Flyers rookie Eric Lindros, touted as the league's next superstar.

Despite reports that ABC, which owns ESPN, might be part of the new TV deal and telecast 4-6 games a year, there has been no such agreement, yet.

'We are going to work with the National Hockey League to see if that is possible. We have no commitment right now,' ESPN executive vice president Ed Durso said.

Stein said the NHL and ESPN will be working together 'to effect major network (ABC, CBS or NBC) exposure of games during each of the next five seasons.'

Stein also said there would be 'ongoing dialogue' between the NHL and SportsChannel America, to be joined by ESPN, 'that might result in a continued role for SportsChannel in the NHL's overall broadcast plans. '

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