Why No One Is Seeing the NHL's Great Game

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Mark Goldman / EPA

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi upends Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin during the Eastern Conference semifinals

What a dream series for the NHL. The league's two best players, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, are going goal for goal, assist for assist, in an Eastern Conference semifinal series headed for a deciding Game 7 on Wednesday night. In Game 2, a captivating 4-3 Capitals win, both guys scored hat tricks. Five of the games have been decided by one goal, and three have gone into overtime.

It's a once-in-a-decade duel — the kind of rare treat that somehow exceeds the hype. So tonight, tune in to Channel 603 and catch the last game of an instant classic. (Read about Joel Stein's quest to write about hockey.)

That's right: Channel 603, square in television's Yukon Territory. Since the hockey playoffs are on Versus, formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network, viewers in many markets will have to search the hinterland of channel listings in order to watch the games. Versus is Channel 603 on DirecTV, and its placement isn't pretty on cable either. On Time Warner Cable's Los Angeles system, it's Channel 267; in New York, Cablevision puts Versus on Channel 146; and in Dallas, Versus gets prime position on Channel 254. Of the nation's 115 million television households, some 40 million do not even get Versus. (See pictures of second-place athletes.)

Because of Versus' limited carriage and penalty-box position on many channel lineups, what should be a transcendent series for hockey in America is barely cracking mainstream consciousness. Versus has carried all of the Penguins-Caps series except for Game 1, which NBC broadcast on May 2, and has averaged 1.04 million viewers, according to the Nielsen Co. The series is drawing a smaller audience than last year's College Baseball World Series, which ESPN broadcast for an average of 1.4 million viewers. On May 8, only 647,000 viewers tuned in to Game 4 of the series, making it the 81st highest-rated program on cable that night. The Crosby-Ovechkin dream duel clocked in behind both a Batman episode on the Cartoon Network (1.5 million viewers) and a Reba rerun on Lifetime (930,000). The Los Angeles Lakers–Houston Rockets NBA playoff game on ESPN, with nearly 6 million viewers, came in first. The May 9 NASCAR Sprint Cup race, a regular-season affair, drew 7.5 times as many viewers as Game 5 — an overtime thriller — shown the same night on Versus.

How did hockey skate into this mess? Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, Versus outbid ESPN for rights to hockey games. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman chose cash over the increased exposure any sport gets from ESPN, which is currently in 98 million homes. While the game has gotten better — new rules have increased scoring, and phenoms like Ovechkin and Crosby have given the game new blood — Bettman lost a mainstream audience to which he could market this improved product. So while Ovechkin-Crosby plays out in the wilderness, Bettman should wonder what might have been. (See TIME's picks for the best and worst sports executives of 2008.)

Many hockey insiders are frustrated. "Quite frankly, I don't believe people know what Versus is, and I still don't know what they do," says Chicago Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz, whose team will face the winner of the Detroit-Anaheim series in the Western Conference finals (broadcast on Versus, of course). The players' union has already griped about getting back on ESPN, but that's not happening anytime soon. The NHL and Versus are stuck with each other through 2011. So enjoy tonight's Game 7. Just get ready to climb up the dial.

See sports pictures taken by Walter Iooss.

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