Pucks in my House: NHL Center Ice & AHL Live

Nearly two decades ago, a Bruce Springsteen song lamented the fact that there were "57 channels and nothin' on". That still happens in the present as you well know-only now it's with a lot more channels! I'm going to veer off the beaten path today and tell you about a couple of ways I've been able to get a Blue Jackets or Falcons fix when being at the arena is out of the question. First, join me as I take you on a journey back to the Dark Ages.

The 1970s. The pre-cable and pre-satellite 1970s.

Growing up in the greater Springfield, MA area, we had our local network affiliates. ABC and NBC in Springfield. CBS was in nearby Hartford. Then, in the early 70s, Springfield launched a PBS station. That was it. As the decade reached it's scandalous midpoint, so came a rooftop antenna. Our local channels were now crystal clear all the time and if you didn't mind squinting through a snowy picture, a few more channels were somewhat visible. Channels from such foreign lands as New Haven, CT and Albany, NY. Although we didn't have the top of the line antenna that brought in the mysterious signal of the famous WSBK, TV 38 in Boston.

Famous, because back in the cableless dark ages, TV 38 was THE channel to have. Prized by your friends, envied by your neighbors. For most New Englanders, a sports fan's paradise due to the telecasts of the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins. Unfortunately for your author, I (despite my New England roots) have NEVER been a fan of any of the Boston clubs. If the sports weren't enough, WSBK also showed The Three Stooges endlessly on weekday afternoons. Sports and Stooges, this really was a terrific channel!

As the decade drew to a close, a new phenomenon entered into my world...CABLE TV!

Back in those pre-regulatory days, when cable companies made an effort to carry programming that their viewers actually wanted to see, our cable system carried not just some Boston stations-including the aforementioned WSBK, but some New York stations as well. Perfect for a NY sports fan! Yankee games on WPIX and then into the early 80s, USA Network carried New York Rangers games from Madison Square Garden. As the decades have passed since then and pay television became big business, programming choices have increased exponentially. I present that background because this dinosaur wanted to talk a little bit about some hockey "pay per view" options.

I am a DirecTV subscriber and for me, "Center Ice" has become a must have. If you aren't familiar with it, the package brings out of market games into your home, regardless of where you live. This has become a must because in my case, and I'm guessing I'm not the only one, as I said earlier I am not a fan of my "local" team (Boston). Beyond watching any one team to excess, there are a variety of "can't miss" games mixed in. Without turning this column into a diatribe about major league sports ticket pricing, I bought my brother a pair of Bruins tickets a couple of seasons ago. The cost of those two tickets far exceeded the annual cost of Center Ice. Using that as a barometer, Center Ice is reasonably priced. Plus, there's rarely a line for food and the bathroom is usually clean.

Taking my video obsession one step further, along with Versus, NHL Network and in this particular market, NESN I have to think that just about every single NHL game is available in my house! I say "just about" because there was a Nashville-Phoenix game last week that didn't make the cut, for whatever reason.

Strangely enough then, as a lifelong New York Rangers fan, Why you may ask yourself am I pontificating about this stuff on a Blue Jackets blog of all places?

Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge, of course!

In spite of having the ability to watch all those games, I rarely watched the Jackets. I'm an "Original 6" kind of guy. Then last March, when the working agreement between Columbus and the Springfield Falcons was announced I looked a little deeper into the offerings of the Center Ice listings. I can't say that I totally immersed myself in the CBJ at the end of the season, but now I was glad that I had the opportunity to tune in and learn a little bit about who the Jackets were and what might be in store for the Falcons this season. Now after training camp and the early part of this season, I have to admit...I'm a Jackets fan! I like the synergy between Columbus and Springfield. Both teams have done some good things in the early going. As a lifelong observer, I'm pleased and I find myself optimistic for playoff runs by both clubs.

To this out of market fan, I like the straight forward approach of Rimer as the play by play voice of the Jackets. He's not a grandstanding homer like some others (who shall remain nameless). Jeff is clear and accurate in his call of a game. I haven't found him to force in the same worn out expressions that others are guilty of-to the point where these others think that it's their call of a play that makes it special, rather than the players who are on the ice executing it. Complementing Jeff is former collegiate coach, Bill Davidge. I couldn't say if even after a decade, it's the "newness" of the NHL to Columbus, but I find Bill's dissection of plays, his commentary and even his "Hockey School" segments really enjoyable and more importantly, full of fundamental knowledge. Knowledge of the game that can readily be understood by the newest of fans. When I am watching the FSO telecast, I know that I am not going to be looking for the mute button because of mindless banter that occurs on some other games.

A caveat to the coverage on DirecTV is if you are deemed "out of market"(based on your ZIP code), you can subscribe to their "Sports Pack" ($12 a month) to get all regional sports networks in the country. For reasons unthinkable to my wife, I continue to get the sports pack as I have for the past six years. That's for pre-game and post-game coverage. Even though you "have" the channels, regular games are blacked out. Prior to my "Jacket Fever", primarily I would watch YES for Yankees programs and MSG for Rangers programming, but for the past few months I've become a regular FSO viewer.

Which brings me to the Falcons. Some readers of The Cannon wondered what was in store when the Falcons returned to their old "home" in Syracuse. I thought this was a terrific question, because as Springfield has changed affiliates over the years, I've liked to see how former Falcons' careers progressed. I didn't rush to the MassMutual Center when Syracuse came here a few weeks ago. After all, Anaheim is now their parent club so there's no connection to Springfield hockey on that front. However the current Junior Jackets going to Syracuse piqued my interest.

Enter AHL Live.

This was my first time on the AHL Live website this season. The interface is what you'd expect. Video window on the left side of the screen and a chat dialog on the right. There is a full screen option for the video, more on that in a moment. There are several different plans to choose from to watch games on AHL Live. They are 1) All Access: $400 2) "Your Team" Team Pass - all games: $200 3) Your Team - away pass $125 and single game availability is $7. Although I spend more than my fair share of time in front of a computer screen, I couldn't justify buying the whole season package for $400. This option may appeal to some AHL addicts but at twice the cost of a similar NHL package, it doesn't make a lot of sense for me personally.

I find the "Your Team" Team Pass somewhat appealing. In a budget conscious sense, the $200 outlay is a great value for all 80 games of your team. Typically, AHL season tickets can be had in the $400 and up range for a full season plan (home games). So that's about half the upfront cost for all the games.

I opted for the $7 one game plan for the game against the Crunch. My expectations were dashed when the video connected and I saw the hard cam view of the rink and the Crunch logo (and the advertisements in the ice) were all upside down. That I suppose is more on the arena or team than the video service. But, wouldn't you think that somebody would notice this ahead of time? I can't recall any of the NHL teams that I've seen on Center Ice have their main arena view on the "wrong" side of the arena.

For the next two plus hours, I would get familiar with that view. Very familiar. For whatever reason, this was the only camera used for the entire game. This gave the game a distinctively unprofessional feel. More along the lines of public access TV coverage of a high school game. Think of that view with the camera simply panning end to end. There were occasional, klunky zoom in's...predictably after fights or after a goal as the players congratulated each other.

That being said, during the game, I chose the full screen mode to watch the game (I was watching on a 20" widescreen monitor). This helped somewhat. I found it challenging to make out player's numbers on the fly. The video was basic at best. I felt that the video served as an accompaniment to the audio. The video is merged with either club's radio broadcast to complete the package. On this night, the Syracuse audio feed defaulted to play when the game started. I didn't mind listening to the Crunch broadcaster, Jason Lockhart. During breaks I tried to simply click a radio button to change the audio feed, but apparently you need to log out and log back in to make changes. In a moment of unfounded distrust, I opted to simply stay with the Syracuse audio, as if something went wrong for whatever reason, I risked missing the game that I really wanted to see.

Despite the quirks, watching the game was enjoyable. My logic was for the $7 that I paid, if I wanted to go to this game in person (something that had been discussed) by the time I got done with tickets, tolls, gas, parking and food I was probably looking at $150 or so. So this in comparison turned out to be a bargain! This was not the first time I had ever watched a game on AHL Live. Previously, I have watched a couple of games on AHL Live in seasons past and was pleased with the technical aspect of the presentation. On these other occasions, the production was more polished (multi camera shoot, effectively directed). And for the record, the one camera view showed everything that needed to be seen. More cameras would have enhanced the game, but the one camera adequately told the story.

Unlike the 1970s when my viewing options were limited to the point that kids of today couldn't even imagine, having the ability to watch AHL Live is really mind boggling. Technically, pretty straight forward, but in it's own way impressive. The tech company behind AHL Live is Neulion, who among their other clients include the NFL, NHL, ESPN, MLS and many more. So while this one game was far from worthy of the 50" high def screen I have in my living room, being able to watch a Saturday night hockey game from Syracuse while sitting in my office was an enjoyable experience. Perhaps made just a little sweeter by a Falcons victory!

Recently, market research firm SNL Kagan reported that the overall number of cable subscribers dropped by 711,000 in the second quarter of this year. Although I am a Center Ice subscriber through DirecTV, the NHL also offers their GameCenter package online. I have looked into this plan in the recent past and I think once I can get my computer video stream onto my big screen, I too may become an ex-subscriber. Why, you may ask if I am a satisifed customer. Well, other than hockey in winter and baseball in the summer, there are 357 channels and there's nothing on.

I think "The Boss" would agree.

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