AT THIS TIME last year, the Flyers were still neck-deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The final was under way against the Chicago Blackhawks and the notion that two hockey cities were in a contest for the great and iconic silver trophy was unquestioned. To be in the middle of it was to experience what the NHL has always hoped to be: not dominant like the Eagles and the NFL, and not necessarily threaded into the city's fiber like the Phillies and baseball, but real and meaningful nonetheless - real and meaningful and recognized for the spectacle that it is.

With that . . .

. . . same time, next year.

It is Tuesday night, about 26 hours before the start of the Cup finals between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks. It also is a day when the NHL has announced the shift of one of its franchises, from Atlanta to Winnipeg - a news event that happens less than once a decade. The television is tuned to ESPN, to the 6 p.m. "SportsCenter."

And . . . nothing.

Not a word about hockey.

Not one.

It becomes a game of sorts, watching the scroll on the left side of the screen that announces the segments that are coming next. That ESPN was going to spend a goodly portion of the hourlong show pumping up the start of the NBA Finals, which were to be aired on its corporate sister, ABC, was entirely understandable. ESPN, long ago, acknowledged that its news shows were a promotional vehicle as well as a journalistic enterprise.

But to keep watching that scroll . . . and to see a bunch of NBA, followed by a bunch of Jim Tressel, followed by a bunch more NBA, with a smattering of baseball and the French Open, and then a bunch more NBA, and, well, that was it. At which point, ESPN switched to coverage of a baseball game and "SportsCenter" shifted over to ESPN2.

With that, the quest could not be abandoned.

When would they get to the NHL?

If you look at the four major leagues, look at them in terms of annual revenue generated, you get this kind of a rough breakdown:

NFL, $9 billion.

MLB, $7 billion.

NBA, $4 billion.

NHL, $3 billion.

Seeing as how about 20 percent of the NHL revenue comes from Canada, compared probably to about 5 percent of the other sports' revenue - this is total back-of-the-envelope guesstimation - you would have to make some adjustments. But even at that, the NHL receives nowhere near the coverage it merits based upon the money it generates.

That the NHL knows that is clear. That the NHL has decided to live with it is also clear. When its recent television deal was announced, the whole package went to NBC/Comcast/Versus. Rather than carve out something to get back into the ESPN family, the league stuck with a deal that has, without question, better served its existing customers than ESPN ever did.

But it is an interesting mindset. Because, on the one hand, the NHL is growing - and the league can offer you reams of data that proves it. But on the other hand, if ESPN is any kind of barometer of mainstream American sporting thought, well, what?

The whole Atlanta-to-Winnipeg thing follows the same theme. The NHL rolled out its Sun Belt strategy under commissioner Gary Bettman, and it has been a decidedly mixed experiment. Atlanta had terrible ownership, by all accounts, and missed the playoffs in 10 out of 11 seasons. They never gave the fans there a chance, and that is a disgrace.

But going back to Winnipeg says a couple of things. More than anything, it might just be that the Canadian dollar is a lot stronger than it used to be. When the Jets left in the mid-'90s, the team was paying salaries in American dollars while drawing revenues in Canadian dollars that were worth only 65 cents. Now, the currencies are essentially at parity. Throw in a modern arena and a billionaire owner, and welcome back.

But in there somewhere is the notion that the NHL seems more interested in serving its current customers in 2011, more interested in growing revenues by enhancing the experience for people who already love the game - because it already has the most affluent fan base among the four sports.

Again, the NHL is still reaching for more customers - and if it could ever develop an African-American superstar player and put him on the New York Rangers, well, it would be interesting to see what happened.

In the meantime, though, it has to settle for pockets of strength, like Philadelphia (where the Flyers on CSN averaged a 2.4 rating this past season while the resurgent Sixers averaged only a 1.6).

And their fans have to search. On ESPN2 on Tuesday night, the news finally came at about 7:35. In the 95th minute of back-to-back "SportsCenters," the NHL finally arrived. There were three elements: Steve Levy and Barry Melrose talking from Vancouver, followed by a short promotion for coverage on ESPN-Boston - promotion, promotion, promotion - followed by less than a minute on the move to Winnipeg, with no video of Bettman or the announcement news conference.

Total time: 3 minutes, 45 seconds.

Total number of players interviewed: 0.

And back to the NBA. *

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