After watching half a hockey season crash through the ice due to frozen labor negotiations, execs at Fox, ESPN and the myriad regional and local broadcasters who carry hockey games are awaiting the answer to a key question: Does the puck stop here?

It’s just getting started, and they couldn’t be more relieved. A year ago, hockey had the world on a string, with escalating media exposure, big boosts in national interest from fans and licensers and an over-the-air network TV contract in the bag. But a 103-day lockout of National Hockey League players by team owners lasted from early fall until two weeks ago, and gone forever are nearly 40 games per team from the 84-game schedule.

But Fox Sports is forging ahead despite the reduced game load. The weblet, which last year signed a five-year, $155 million deal with the NHL to carry 12-15 games a season, is in fact losing just one game from its debut schedule this year. (The loss is a big one, though: It was the All-Star Game, which was scheduled for Jan. 21 and was canceled weeks ago at a low point in contract talks.)

Fox doesn’t go on the air with its weekend slate of hockey games until sometime in April, and execs last week were scrambling to pull together an exact schedule after the sudden breakthrough in negotiations ended the lockout. But the big players in the field are convinced that hockey is still hockey, damage control will be minimal and there’ll be no bitter after-taste for viewers, ad buyers or network execs.

“Hockey fans are basically lunatics about the game, and they’ll walk through a wall of fire to see one,” said Tracy Dolgin, Fox exec VP of marketing. “Hockey is perfect for our young audiences, and all of the Fox-like qualities of the game are still there.”

Recent forays into hockey by the broadcast nets brought some melted-down ratings numbers (a six-game package of weekend afternoon games on ABC the last two seasons averaged a 1.7 rating, with a high of 2.3). As it did with its first-time venture into football this year, Fox says it’s buying into the future with its hockey franchise, and the short-term bottom line is not of prime importance.

“We didn’t get this just for this season,” Dolgin said. “This is being built for the long run. With football, we had a huge base of built-in support – there are 85 million football viewers on Sundays. Here, we’re building on a small, fanatical base, a perfect demo that could theoretically be a big audience. What we’ve really lost is one game, plus a tactical edge. When we were marketing the NFL, we had nine months to do it. With hockey, we’re pulling it together in 80 days.”

According to several ad execs, the long delay in starting the season should have very little effect on Fox’s ability to pull in an audience that has only one way to go – up.

“ABC was jumping in and out of the game, and they weren’t trying to create a home for it,” said one major media buyer. “I think Fox will be able to do a real good job on hockey, with their young male demos and their ability to cross-promote for the primetime programming.”

At ESPN, an old hand at this game, the predictions are quietly confident but definitely more cautious. The player lockout forced the cable net to shave 12 games from its original 26-game schedule. On ESPN2, which launched 15 months ago, a 75-game slate for this year has been knocked back to 37.

“It’s difficult to predict the overall impact (of the lockout),” said ESPN senior VP John Wildhack. He cited widespread reports that ticket sales since the labor settlement have been nothing short of amazing and added, “Let’s hope that will translate to increased viewership. The hardcore fans will be back. But will those people who became interested in hockey last year come back now? Time will tell.”

ESPN2, which has nearly doubled its household reach to 17 million since its premiere, is trying to jumpstart its hockey audience by launching the sport’s first national nightly news-and-highlight show. “NHL 2Night,” a half-hour Tuesday-Saturday strip, debuts Feb. 7.

Early last summer, the team in the biggest market (the New York Rangers) ended a 54-year hex by winning hockey’s Stanley Cup championship. ESPN pulled its highest-ever hockey rating for the closing game with a 5.2, a jump of more than 500% from average regular-season viewership.

“After last season, we had very high hopes,” acknowledged Wildhack. “The 48-game schedule this season is kind of a sprint for the finish line,” which he and others in the sport feel could in fact be a big advantage. Sixteen of the league’s 26 teams will reach the playoffs, and the short schedule makes each game that much more meaningful to a club’s fortunes.

At the Madison Square Garden Network, home of the Rangers, execs are lamenting the tremendous loss of momentum from last year’s euphoric championship run. They’re also not too thrilled with the loss of 39 games from the slates at MSG and MSG2, which collectively reach almost 9 million homes.

Jim Liberatore, director of sales at MSG, said virtually all of the net’s advertisers have “re-expressed” their ad buys in MSG’s other programs, and they’re now funneling into the revised hockey schedule. The same is true for ESPN’s buyers. It’s one of the big advantages of being an all-sports outlet, in that demos from one sport to another don’t change much and thus advertisers will readily buy into other programs when one becomes unavailable.

The Anaheim-based Prime Sports regional net, which has 4.2 million subscribers and carries the L.A. Kings and the rising newcomers from Anaheim, the Mighty Ducks, lost 30 Kings games and 16 Ducks games from the 1994-95 sked. Publicity manager Bryan Byrd noted that ad buys are being redirected into the new schedule of hockeycasts almost without missing a beat.

“The hockey situation is different, because this was a lockout, not a strike,” he said. “I think that means the fans won’t be nearly as bitter. And the diehards will be back.”

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