- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

It appears certain that Washington Capitals fans with DirecTV will have to go to a friend’s house or a bar to see Thursday’s season opener against the Boston Bruins.

The NHL season likely will get under way without a resolution to the dispute that has kept the league’s main television partner, Versus, off DirecTV’s satellite service.

Versus and DirecTV were expected to negotiate through Wednesday evening in an attempt to strike a deal, but the chances of a compromise seemed remote.

“We are working at 110 percent pace to try to get this thing resolved,” Versus president Jamie Davis said. “The two sides are talking, and I’m optimistic that we can reach an amicable solution, but right now DirecTV is unwilling to budge.”

DirecTV dropped Versus from its channel lineup Sept. 1, citing an unwillingness to meet the network’s price to carry it. The move has left about 18 million people without Versus.

Davis has insisted that the dispute is less about cost and more about DirecTV’s desire to place Versus on a tier with less distribution. A move to a more expensive tier would affect about 6 million subscribers, Davis said.

Hockey fans appear to be the primary group caught in the middle. Versus is scheduled to air the Capitals-Bruins game Thursday at 7 p.m., followed by the game between the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks at 10.

“We don’t need any distractions,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. “They’re in a dumb fight. It’s over money, and there will be no winners. It’s not good for the league. It’s not good for the fans. It’s not good for Versus. And it can’t be good for DirecTV.”

Leonsis, for his part, said he supported Versus in the dispute because the network and its parent company, Comcast, have supported the league financially through broadcast rights deals worth tens of millions of dollars. Leonsis said he canceled his DirecTV service and switched to a month-to-month plan with his cable provider. The NHL has urged fans to contact DirecTV and urge them to carry Versus.

Versus claims that millions of people have switched to competing cable providers or Dish Network in order to receive the channel and that the switches almost have made up for the loss of viewers because of the DirecTV dispute. Meanwhile, the channel said viewership for September was actually up from last year. Davis said more people tuned in as a result of Versus’ coverage of mixed martial arts, college football and the Indy Racing League, plus momentum from summer programming that included the Tour de France.

“The viewers are finding us despite the fact that DirecTV has tuned us out,” Davis said.

DirecTV issued a statement saying it would put the games on while negotiations were ongoing, but Versus has yet to agree to anything.

“The puck is in their end of the rink,” the satellite company said.

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