ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The National Hockey League is having an eventful first round of playoffs, a record television deal, player suspensions, trash-talking by coaches, even an octopus crackdown.
To explain all this, we're joined now, as we are most Fridays, by sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hi, Stefan.
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter): Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: And let's start with the business of hockey. Tell us about this record TV deal.
Mr. FATSIS: Well, I think this is a real good sign of the NHL's improved health. The league renewed its rights with NBC and Versus, the cable network. It's a 10-year, $2 billion deal, and it's by far the biggest annual payout that the NHL has ever received, well above current deal with Versus which is $77.5 million a year. The current deal with NBC doesn't even include a guaranteed rights payment every year, it's just revenue sharing. So this is a step forward.
SIEGEL: Okay. Next item: The suspensions, five so far in the first round of the playoffs. How does that compare to previous years?
FATSIS: Well, the NHL's enforcement chief, Colin Campbell, says it's a record number for the full playoffs since he's been in the league office, and that's since 1998. And we're barely halfway thought the first round.
You've got four one-game suspensions for players who hit opponents in or near the head. The fifth suspension was for two games to a player who deliberately stepped on the foot of another player with his skate.
SIEGEL: So is the record because the play is that much rougher or because they're cracking down on rough play?
FATSIS: Well, they're cracking down. Most of this is the result of the NHL's new Rule 48, which bans blindside hits to the head. The NHL was trying to figure out how to interpret this new rule, determine gradations of behavior and punishment. I think we're in a period of transition, where players are sort of retaining themselves about what they can and can't do in the heat of the moment.
But it's all necessary, especially when you consider that arguably the best player in league, Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh, hasn't played since early January because of concussion symptoms. And it's still not clear if he'll be back at all during the playoffs.
SIEGEL: Okay, so apart from the suspensions, what else can you tell us about the NHL playoffs so far?
FATSIS: Well, let's start with defenseman Andrew Ference of Boston. I don't know if you saw the highlights last night, Robert. But this morning he was fined $2,500 by the league for showing his middle finger to Montreal fans after scoring a goal last night.
He swore he didn't do it on purpose. And this is what he said, Robert: I think my glove got caught up.
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FATSIS: And then the other amusing part of the first round of playoffs has been the Washington Capitals coach, Bruce Boudreau. He actually criticized the quality of the locker room at Madison Square Garden and the noise-making ability of New York Rangers fans, who then serenaded him with cries of can you hear us the next game. But the Rangers still blew a three-goal lead and lost in double overtime.
SIEGEL: Okay, now we also mentioned at the top that you have some octopus news for us.
FATSIS: Yes, well, throwing an octopus on the ice at the beginning of a game has been a tradition in the playoffs since 1952 in Detroit. Originally, the octopus was meant to symbolize the eight wins that a team needed to capture the Stanley Cup, now you need 16.
Every year, though, it seems NHL gets less and less tolerant of this tradition, claiming that opposing teams complain about the octopus gunk that ends up on the ice.
This year, at the first game in Detroit, four octopi flew, but the tosser of a fifth octopus was ticketed and fined $500. And Detroit wound up sweeping the Phoenix Coyotes, who by the way may have played their last game in the desert. There are rumors of a move to Winnipeg, whence the Coyotes came in 1996. So we'll see next round whether octopus are flying.
SIEGEL: And apart from octopus gunk, what else of interest is there on the ice?
FATSIS: Well, a real good series between the Vancouver Canucks, who had by far the best record in the regular season, and the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, who had to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Chicago purged its roster before the season to get under the NHL's tight salary cap. It's a sign of how difficult it is to repeat in this league now. Then the Blackhawks went out, they lost their first three games to Vancouver, but they won Game Four and Game Five. Game six is Sunday in Chicago.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.
FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis, who talks with us Fridays about sports and the business of the sports.
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SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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