League also looking ahead at new TV deal for 2011-12 season

The National Hockey League has pacted with HBO to take part in the pay cabler’s “24/7″ sports franchise.

Four-episode “Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” will debut Dec. 15 and is set to chronicle the day-to-day activities of the two teams leading up to the Jan. 1 game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The outdoor Winter Classic, traditionally skedded for New Year’s Day and televised by NBC, began in 2008 and has become one of the league’s showcase events. Last year’s contest was held at baseball’s historic Fenway Park and drew 3.7 million viewers, approximately quadruple the size of a normal regular season game on the net.

The NHL, set to begin its regular season in a few weeks, is coming off a strong ratings year. The league has been televised on sports cabler Versus since the 2005-06 season and both that and the NBC deal will expire in June 2011.

Versus brought in solid post-season numbers this spring, including 3.6 million who tuned in to game two of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. Cabler — known as the Outdoor Life Network when the NHL came aboard in 2005 — also airs rodeo, auto racing and college sports. Game six of the Finals on NBC drew 8.3 million, the most to watch an NHL game in 36 years.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said no formal negotiations for a new deal have begun, but informal back-channel discussions are continuing.

“We’re in a regular dialogue with our partners on an ongoing basis,” he said “There’s a lot of hype and focus on it. We’re not at this stage viewing it with the same level of scrutiny that it’s getting. It doesn’t mean that it’s not important. It’s extraordinarily important, but we’ll get there in due course doing it the right way.”

Unlike all other major sports deals between leagues and networks, the NBC doesn’t pay a rights fee to the NHL; the two entities split ad revenue. Whether that arrangement will continue in the next contract — whoever the league’s television partners are going forward — remains to be seen.

ESPN will certainly be part of the negotiations for the new deal. The behemoth sports cabler telecast the NHL from 1992-2004 and would welcome hockey to its large programming palette. The NHL also might also be happy to move to ESPN, which has a subscriber base at nearly 100 million compared to 75 million at Versus.

Another advantage ESPN has over Versus is its multiple platforms. In addition to a handful of cable channels, ESPN can also stream programming on its website ESPN3, employ 3D, and offer games via other digital distribution.

Comcast-owned Versus doesn’t have the multiple distribution model to compete with ESPN, but that situation might change as the net is folded into the NBC Universal family once the merger between the telecommunications giant and Peacock are finalized.

ESPN wouldn’t comment on bringing back hockey, except for a “We remain interested in the NHL” statement from a spokesperson in the net’s Bristol, Conn. headquarters.

As for the more imminent “24/7″ HBO skein, which previously has delved into the worlds of NASCAR and pro boxing, producers will focus on the ever-growing rivalry between the Penguins and Capitals and their young stars, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, respectively.

The NHL’s involvement with “24/7″ was born out of HBO Sports’ recent doc “Broad Street Bullies,” about the rough and tumble Philadelphia Flyers teams of the mid-1970s. NHL chief operating officer John Collins and Bettman met with HBO Sports topper Ross Greenburg to talk about having the league involved in more programming on the pay cabler.

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