(Barry Melrose : anticipating at least as much face time as those NASCAR schmoes)

From the Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand and Tripp Mickle :

The NHL and ESPN are in discussions about bringing the league™s games back to ESPN2 as soon as the 2008-09 season.

Multiple sources described the conversations as preliminary. The two started talking the week of July 16 when the NHL approached ESPN about NBC™s nine-game regular-season schedule, plus the playoffs. NBC holds the rights to air the coming season as part of a revenue-sharing agreement, and the network holds a one-year option for the 2008-09 season.

It™s not certain that NBC would exercise that option, given the sport™s tepid ratings on the network. Regular-season ratings on NBC averaged a 0.9 during the 2006-07 season and a 1.0 during the 2007-08 season over nine telecasts.

The key to this whole scenario is Versus, which holds cable exclusivity to all of the league™s games through 2011 and is paying the league a rights fee in excess of $70 million annually. Sources close to the Comcast-owned network, however, indicated that Versus would be willing to waive that clause, but only if it gets something in return ” either a lower rights
fee, a stronger schedule or a deal extension.

The talks with ESPN mark a turnaround from three years ago, when Mark Shapiro, then-executive vice president of programming and production, publicly questioned the value of having the league on TV ” remarks that still make league executives bristle. The arrival of Skipper in October 2005 could allow both sides to overcome that, as sources close to the league believe that Skipper values hockey more than Shapiro.