Ice thawing for NHL, ESPN following break-up

Early talks for cable puck package

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NEW YORK -- After a somewhat acrimonious split in 2005 after talks to renew their longtime rights deal collapsed, ESPN and the NHL have warmed to each other.

Sources said preliminary discussions have been held between ESPN and the NHL about putting hockey games on ESPN2 as early as the 2008-09 season. Multiple sources said the NHL has approached ESPN about taking over NBC's package of late regular-season games, playoffs and Games 3-7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. But they have only been preliminary and not in the discussion phase let alone negotiating stage.

After having a split following the lockout season of 2004-05, the NHL signed a six-year agreement with OLN (now Versus) for cable exclusivity. A broadcast deal with NBC, which has been extended, already was in place.

The NHL and NBC declined comment about the discussions. ESPN declined comment other than to release a statement saying that the NHL has existing TV agreements, but "as we have said in the past, when the rights become available, we will discuss possibilities with the NHL."

A source with knowledge of the talks said it might be that NBC -- which doesn't pay a rights fee for the NHL but instead has a revenue-sharing agreement -- is unhappy with the ratings for 2006-07 season.

NBC's primetime hit a record low on the Saturday night Stanley Cup Finals game between the Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Mighty Ducks. ESPN, on the other hand, might have realized that it has been suffering a bit from not having pro hockey.

A deal to bring the NHL back to ESPN would have to clear at least two hurdles beyond an agreement between ESPN and the NHL. First, NBC would have to agree not to exercise its option for the 2008-09 season, then Versus would have to agree to give up its cable exclusivity.

Versus declined comment, though sources said the channel perhaps wouldn't be adverse to giving it up if it could get something in return, including an extension to its multiyear contract or perhaps something else.