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NHL tries to break the ice online

The National Hockey League revamps its subscription video service in hopes of connecting with hockey fans scattered in rink-free parts of North America.

Among the new features that the NHL is adding to its video streaming service are added stats and a play-by-play "ice tracker." National Hockey League

The National Hockey League figures its teams do a pretty good job of connecting with the ice junkies in their own backyards.

But the league reckons that many of the 20 million hockey fans in North America don't live near their favorite teams. The league is hoping that improvements to its subscription video service will appeal to the diaspora.

The league has been streaming video for a while now, said Perry Cooper, the NHL's senior vice president of direct and digital marketing. As it did last year, those that pay $159 a year ($169 after October 15) gain access to nearly all games, including the ability to watch up to four games at once.

New this year, though, the league has moved to Flash-based video that it says more Mac and PC users will be able to use, Cooper said. The league will also pick one game each day to offer with multiple camera angles, and offer added stats as well as the ability to play back games on demand.

Major League Baseball offers a , MLB.tv, while the National Basketball Association offers online streaming as an added service for those that pay for its League Pass service on digital cable or satellite.

Cooper rejected the idea that the new video service is destined to be a niche product. While hockey may not be as big as baseball or basketball in the U.S., hockey fans also lack the plentiful television options available to watch out-of-area games.

"A lot of fans are displaced and don't have regular or immediate access to their favorite team," Cooper said. Not to mention all those hockey-crazed Canadians.

And the idea that hockey fans maybe aren't the most tech-savvy bunch? Also bunk, Cooper assured me. (I actually didn't need all that much convincing, being both a hockey fan and well, reasonably tech savvy.)

"It's a common misconception among the marketplace, the media, and sports fans that hockey fans are something less than affluent," Cooper said. "It's the complete opposite," he added, saying that hockey fans are more likely than other enthusiasts to have things like digital video recorders and broadband connections.

I tried to pin Cooper to the boards until he gave me some hard numbers on subscription projections, but was unable to get specifics.

"We have high hopes," he said.

As for offering games for paid download, Cooper said to stay tuned.

"We're working on that right now," he said. "It's a decision we are going to make soon." Asked whether the league would work with all the major services or go exclusively with one, Cooper said that, too, is still being worked out. "There are advantages to both," he said.