In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.

Joshua Neal: Matt, this time in Lacing Up, we’re going to talk about something that (much like the rest of this “hockey season”) makes basically no logical sense at all. Even through hot summers I can remember watching different programming on the NHL Network that included post-Stanley Cup interviews, division-by-division previews for the upcoming season, and coverage of the either upcoming or recently past NHL Draft. This year, when perhaps the most buzz the NHL has created from a business (read: television) standpoint, we tune in and see reruns of old news. There’s no coverage of the lockout from the NHL Network’s perspective, as if somehow ignoring the fact that the lockout is going on will magically end it. I’m not insinuating that covering it closely will, but it would certainly be nice to receive news on the lockout from an accredited, licensed NHL source rather than refreshing my Twitter feed any time there’s rumblings of progress. If the NHL Network is “Where the NHL gets hockey,” what does it do when there’s no NHL hockey to get? To this point, my answer would be “Not very much.” Matt, I have a feeling that this lack of lockout coverage frustrates you, too. Care to verbalize some of that frustration?

Matt Paul: I sure do. I’ve written full opinion pieces on similar topics in the past, and this frustrates me to no end. Call me jealous, but when I sneak a peak at the NFL Network, I see what a real official network looks like. Conversely, when I flip the channel to the NHL Network (or more accurately, browse the programming on the channel guide — without actually turning to the channel, mind you) , I see what looks more like “NHL Classic.” I have a problem with that. Hockey may be a nine-month sport, but there is a lot to discuss during the three offseason months that “NHL Live” and “NHL Tonight” should remain on the air daily to keep fans appraised of free agent signings, trades, management changes, team previews, division previews, conference previews, etc. Instead, the network chooses to end its live broadcasts on July 2 of each year, leaving a two and a half month void. The absolute biggest news of the summer, the courting by many teams and the eventual signing by the Wild of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Think we caught any of that on the NHL Network? Hell no, they were too busy showing the Stanley Cup Finals from four years ago.

And now we’re in the midst of a lockout that has hockey fans across the country and into Canada starving for something, anything new to watch. Instead, we’re getting a nightly dose of HBO’s 24/7 Capitals/Penguins. Seriously, I loved that series, but after having it force fed down my throat on a nightly basis, it’s lost its novelty. Josh, why am I not surprised that a league that doesn’t understand that it will make more money playing hockey than locking out its players (okay, so I extremely overgeneralized here, but you get my point) also thinks the best way to fill a day of programming on its network is to run the same shows/games day after day, after day, after day, after day…. It kind of got monotonous reading that didn’t it? Now you know how I feel about the NHL Network and its programming.
Josh, can you tell this is a sore topic for me?

Josh: Just a bit. It’s definitely frustrating that once the month of July hits, we’re basically relegated to a media freeze from what should be a major sports network. Hockey has spent all of this time trying to mend fences supposedly, and to solidify its status as the fourth of the “Big 4” sports leagues. To me, the move to create the network was one of currency, keeping up with the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Instead of solidifying its status as a “Big 4” sport, I think that the NHL Network is just one more way that the league looks like the disrespected little brother of the other major sports leagues.

For the league to truly do what it claims to want to do, it has to be available on all levels. In fact, I’ll be as bold to say that I think TSN, the Canadian “ESPN” essentially, does a better job handling the NHL on a year-long basis. Matt, can the NHL Network borrow some of TSN’s model successfully? And don’t even get me started on the ESPN we deal with here in the states…

Matt: Josh, I think the NHL Network could borrow some of Comedy Central’s model if they want to gain some credibility. It’s that bad, really. Consider this. Comedy Central, a network with the sole intention of making you laugh, has more daily news shows than NHL Network at the moment. Heck, I’m getting more news from the Onion News Network than I am from the NHL Network.

To answer your question, YES! The executives an creative minds at the NHL Network need to step back, examine what they are (or more appropriately, aren’t) doing and move forward with plans to improve immediately. We’re talking about more than two live shows (three if you count “NHL On The Fly”, which essentially is the same as the new “NHL Tonight”) during the season; more inside looks at teams during the season; more studio interviews with players, coaches, general managers, etc.; and more shows during the offseason (and lockouts) to keep fans thinking about the game from an official source. Josh, another big gripe I have with the network is its refusal to allow the on air personalities to have personalities (or maybe it’s a case of refusing to hire people who have personalities). It’s pretty sad when I can honestly say a little more Barry Melrose wouldn’t be a bad thing. All that said, it’s time to get rid of the script, take off the leash, and allow these personalities to show they are having fun! Am I right?

Josh I definitely have to agree here. One of the reasons that HBO’s 24/7 series is so popular is because hockey players tend to have such vibrant, unique personalities. “NHL 36” on the NBC Sports Network further focused that concept on an individual. Even that viewer-based approach to hockey players has wild success (and notably more success than similar shows for the larger sports markets – like Hard Knocks with the New York Jets). The NHL Network has some series like that to supplement their poor supply of live-action programming – take “The Making of a Royal” as an example. They also run “Oil Change.” No disrespect to what they’re doing/building out there in Edmonton, but if they chose a team with a bit more wide appeal, a show like that may find some success as well, in a city stateside or even closer to bigger population hubs that follow the team. I think the biggest point that resonates most with me is that NHL Network seems to consciously choose to avoid live programming and news programs. Perhaps part of that ties back into the hockey personality, as analysts tend to be one extreme ranging from a bland reporter to your Cherry’s and Barry’s (Don and Melrose). However, I think that in matching up personalities and allowing them to exist an experiment that the network should try out in order to more out of the bland monotony they are currently peddling. I mean, they don’t have anything to lose, do they?

Matt: No, they don’t, really. In fact, they have everything to gain. Let’s look at this from one more quick perspective before we sign off until Thursday. The NHL is a borderline first tier professional sports league, and many may argue that this lockout has pushed the NHL to the second tier. With such a status, NHL officials must reach out to fans in any/every way possible. One of the best ways to rebound from this lockout will be to show the fans that the players and owners do care. How do they do that? How about producing more original spotlight pieces, as you mentioned above? That would be a start. But what about a series that heads to different NHL cities during abbreviated training camps to let fans voice their opinions, let players show their enthusiasm for getting back on the ice, and letting owners apologize to the community for lost income? Going beyond this, let’s get those bold personalities you mentioned on air so we have a more sincere and fun environment during live shows. Let’s do more than just a boring radio/television mid-day broadcast and a nightly recap show. Let’s do a daily morning preview show that takes us into the gameday skates of all active teams and some inactive teams with newsworthy items. Let’s do a nightly preview show that discusses key matchups and strategies, as well as the significance of the games. And let’s do a weekly or bi-weekly fantasy hockey show that offers advice and allows poolies to call in and ask questions.

But most importantly, let’s not avoid live shows and new content during the offseason and non-hockey months. Because, to me, that’s ignoring the people who pay the bills: the fans. And, after-all, isn’t it the fans who are the most important in all of this?