TORONTO - When the NHL season kicks off on Thursday fans can start checking their local listings to see what games they can catch on TV. Or they can go online and choose which to watch, and maybe follow a few simultaneously. Those with a newer smartphone can tune into a game on the go. And soon tablets will be in on the action, too.
The NHL doesn't have to work hard to get the attention of sports fans in Canada but it's a different story in the U.S., and the league is working hard to upgrade its digital offerings so the well-connected fan can tune in however they want.
"It's about consumer behaviour," said Perry Cooper, the NHL's senior vice-president of digital media.
"We're certainly of the mind—and I think everyone has to be, with the way that digital is moving in—that people are using two, three, four screens and we want to be as well distributed as possible."
Canadians have long had access to a buffet of NHL-watching options with a subscription to the Centre Ice TV package, and a similar experience is online through "NHL Gamecenter Live."
There's live web streaming of up to 40 games a week (although blackout rules may frustrate fans), home and away broadcast feeds of each game, PVR-style controls to pause or rewind the action, and an option to watch four games at once. A subscription costs $159 for the season, and cable providers are including it free with a $208 subscription to the Centre Ice TV package.
The web product can also be viewed on some Internet-connected TVs or beamed onto the big screens with the PlayStation 3, Roku (still unavailable in Canada), and some Blu-ray players. Tablet plans will also be unveiled later this season, perhaps by the end of the month.
"We certainly think with tablets and mobile devices it's a great place to super-serve a fan," said Cooper, who predicted that mobile phone watching will soon take off.
"People use mobile—and broadband too—as a second screen experience for what they're watching on TV, or to watch another game. We're seeing a lot of that behaviour.
"We understand that mobile is probably going to be, and is in some ways, the No. 1 point that people ultimately will access the web and so ... we're establishing fan relationships through mobile devices."
With the NHL's smartphone program—which is only available to Bell customers—fans will get access to more than 1,000 games on their phones this season, although only games broadcast by CBC, TSN and RDS are available.
The service is $8 a month and is bundled with some smartphone packages. But data usage is not included in the price and fans should be aware of how much video they can watch before extra fees are imposed.
Bell estimates that watching video will use between one to three megabytes of data per minute, so a 500 megabyte data plan could be exceeded after watching just a couple games a month. Extra data is billed at five cents per megabyte, or about five to 15 cents per minute of video.
Cooper was unaware of Bell's policy but said he didn't believe fans should have to pay extra for data usage.
It's "a fan disservice, especially for premium grade content like this," he said.
Bell said it will offer new data plans to its users in the "coming weeks."
Cooper also said the NHL's exclusive contract with Bell is expiring at the end of this season and the league will reconsider whether the mobile product can be made available to more customers in the future.
"We're focusing on and very mindful of maximizing distribution and making sure as many people can touch the NHL as possible," he said. "The best strategy is the one that serves the most fans."
Given that Fox once added a digital glow and comet trail to the puck to help fans follow the action on TV, some might wonder how well the game will translate to a small screen.
But feedback so far has been good, said Mike DiLorenzo, the NHL's director of corporate communications and social media specialist.
"I think you have real avid fans who are subscribing to this service and are very comfortable following NHL game action," DiLorenzo said.
"Their eyes are hard-wired for how to follow a puck."
Bell Mobility's senior vice-president of marketing, Blaik Kirby, said the Olympics proved hockey fans do want mobile access to games.
"For important games there was huge demand amongst our client base for mobile TV and for mobile hockey," Kirby said.
"During the (men's) hockey final we had so many subscriptions that we almost exceeded our capacity."