The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir joins CSTB in acknowledging that the NHL’s cable partner loves dumping on the league. Though at least ESPN VP Mark Shapiro isn’t using an afternoon radio show like Dan Patrick’s to do so.

Mark Shapiro, an executive vice president of ESPN, threw off his gloves and criticized the N.H.L.’s rules, lack of scoring, resistance to letting players wear microphones and resistance to allowing arenas to be equipped with the overhead SkyCam. “Everybody, like us, should be less focused on when they’re coming back, but more on why nobody seems to care,” Shapiro said.

This might be a case of piling on a sports corpse, but the bungling league and the misguided players union deserved it.

It’s rare that a sports television executive excoriates a property once esteemed by his network, let alone questions if the network agreed to pay too much.

ESPN will pay nothing this year because of the cancellation, but Shapiro said that some people thought the deal to pay $60 million this season to put games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC was too rich.

Even more ominous for the N.H.L. is that ESPN may not exercise its option to renew its deal for 2005-6, even if there is a season. With all its leverage, ESPN could let the option lapse and negotiate a discount deal like NBC’s, which offers no guaranteed cash and only promises of sharing revenues, once there are some.

For this season, except for the playoffs, hockey was to have left ESPN, and ESPN2 was to show 40 games. College basketball is doubling the N.H.L. rating that ESPN2 scratched out last season.

“Right now,” Shapiro said last week, “we’re not really sure how to value the league. We have to assess the damage, as do they, and only until you do that and consider your options can you put a true value on what it’s worth.”

Shapiro’s candor underscores what the N.H.L. has become: a damaged niche organization without a real national following or megastars in the United States. The league has to take the same deal from NBC that NBC gave the Arena Football League or get nothing at all. It should count itself grateful if ESPN doesn’t ask it to buy time so that its cable games can be seen nationally.