- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

ESPN announcer Steve Levy knows a thing or two about overtime playoff hockey.
Levy was in the booth Thursday night for Anaheim's five-OT victory against Dallas, a six-hour marathon that did not end until 1:35 a.m. on the East Coast. It was the fourth longest game in NHL history.
Rather than feeling loopy as the game extended deep into the night, Levy was overcome by a feeling of deja vu; he also called a five-overtime game between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh three years ago and the four-overtime classic between the Penguins and Washington in 1996.
Those three are the longest hockey games ever televised.
"I guess I've been tagged with this reputation as the overtime guy," Levy said. "Some might say I've been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I take the opposite view. It's a real privilege to be part of this kind of history."
Such has been the story for the NHL playoffs this season, and particularly ESPN, airing nearly all of the action on ESPN and ESPN2. The 2003 playoffs have featured 13 overtime games, on pace to at least threaten the one-year high of 28 in 1993. The seven contests with multiple OT periods have already tied an NHL record for most in one playoff year, and that total appears destined to increase as defenses continue to tighten and parity reigns.
This spring also has featured four of the 32 longest NHL games ever, led by the Anaheim-Dallas game Thursday. The collective result is far more late-night live game action than the World Series ever gets discredited for and a constant operational challenge for ESPN.
The resources of two full-service networks, plus ESPNews, allow plenty of options for viewers, but the near-daily frequency of overtime hockey has required rescheduling of "SportsCenter" broadcasts, shifting of other late-night game coverage and a general scrapping of many pre-set schedules.
"We are very practiced at rescheduling on the fly," said ESPN spokesman Diane Lamb.
The average ESPN rating for NHL playoffs of 0.6, translating to about 517,800 households, and average ESPN2 rating of 0.3, representing about 252,600 households, trail both the NHL early-round playoff marks from a year ago and ratings so far this spring from the NBA playoffs. NBA playoff audiences on cable have frequently been five and six times as large as those for hockey.
The NHL numbers are even way behind what NBC drew for the World Curling Championships and "The World of American Indian Dance" last weekend.
But NHL fans have responded in their own way to the overtimes and produced a marked, late-night elevation in ratings. ESPN's average rating for overtime games is 0.7, 16 percent higher than its regulation games, and ESPN2 jumps 33 percent to an average rating of 0.4 for its overtime contests.
The Stars-Mighty Ducks game Thursday generated an average rating of 0.8, even though nearly half of the game happened after 11 p.m. Eastern. The game also marked the second-best showing of any game for ESPN in this year's NHL playoffs.
Several teams, including Tampa Bay and Minnesota, are also posting some of their best-ever local cable audiences as their teams continue in the playoffs.
Not surprisingly, ESPN is rooting hard for the overtimes to continue. With marquee draws Detroit, Colorado, St. Louis and Toronto all out of the playoffs, the recurring overtime drama itself is quickly becoming the playoffs' dominant story line.
"There is certainly some concern about those teams being out they have a bulk of the [nationally] recognizable players," Levy said. "But the beauty of these underdogs [such as Minnesota and Anaheim] still being in is, we have an opportunity to introduce them to the general population. These are newer teams with a lot of younger, more emerging players."
Meanwhile, Levy is loading up on coffee and making sure food stays available in the press box well into the night.
"The first one of the marathon games, the Pens and Caps in 1996, I started to feel real goofy after a while," Levy said. "My mouth would open and nothing would come out. Now I have some experience with this. Our producers and crew are very experienced in these situations, and everybody pretty much knows to just stay focused and stay in control.
"And as the overtimes extend, we really don't have to do as much. We're selling less, we're running less promos. Our key is to let the game take care of itself and not get in the way. That, and make sure we don't miss the [winning] goal when it happens."

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