For so many reasons, I want to love Versus.
You know, the network formerly known as OLN. The network that stepped in to the NHL's rescue when ESPN wanted to cut back games to a very small number, as well as put all of them on ESPN2.
And they did so many things right at the start. They added Mike Emrick -- aka Doc -- as a play-by-play man. Emrick's enthusiastic call of New Jersey games is one of the best in the league.
They hired the classy and knowledgeable Bill Clement as a studio host. They showed two games most weeks, most of them in high definition. They promised the NHL as a base of a growing all-sports network.
Where did we go wrong?
Today, Versus still employs good talent. It is the production that leaves a lot to be desired, and that is an area in need of immediate change.
To start, the Versus camera work has been nothing short of awful in the playoffs. Cameramen seem obsessed with keeping the puck in the middle of the frame, which causes a litany of problems.
The best way to watch hockey on television is not to watch the puck -- it is to watch the play develop. Much like watching the game in person, the action away from the puck is often as important as who has the puck. Being able to visualize if someone is wide open in the slot is more important than seeing who has the puck in the corner.
With HD, there is no need for compromise. As HDNet proves, good camerawork allows the camera to remain virtually stationary once the puck enters the offensive zone. With the crispness of HD and the shape of an HDTV, it is more than possible for the viewer to see the entire offensive zone at once.
Instead, Versus zooms in to the point you cannot see both shooter and goalie in most cases. As a result, instead of seeing the shot and a save, you're watching a blurred puck in transit, not really understanding what was involved in the save (or the goal).
To top it off, all non-tube HDTVs -- and tube HDTVs comprise a very small percentage of all HDTVs -- have a slower refresh rate than traditional tube televisions. The result is continual blurring whenever the camera is in motion. And as long as keeping the puck in the center of the screen is the main goal, the camera is in constant motion.
It is not that I am watching on an old model or one with a particularly slow refresh rate. I spent five years researching HDTVs before purchasing one, checking data on refresh rates and spending hours at electronics stores watching hockey to see which was the best.
After more time than I anticipated, the decision was a HDTV that was also more expensive than I anticipated -- but by all accounts, it was the best available in terms of refresh rate.
Yet even on this model, blurring is a major issue on Versus broadcasts, as the camera simply moves too much. Zoom out, show us more of the ice, and utilize slower camera movements. In other words, emulate HDNet.
When fans are unable to see what is happening because of the camerawork, the announcers do not come to the rescue. By now, it is clear the producers are telling Versus play-by-play men to eschew traditional play-by-play, instead telling stories and anecdotes during the play.
The result is incredibly annoying. For those who enjoy the analytical part of the game, the way to watch hockey on television is to watch the play develop and allow the announcers to tell you who has the puck. Without the second part present on Versus broadcasts, the way the game is viewed has to be changed.
I know -- when you're there in person, there's no play-by-play man. But you also have control of what you watch -- you are not at the mercy of questionable camera work -- and many fans still choose to bring a portable radio to hear the radio play-by-play while they are at the game.
Even Emrick, who is great on the Devils games, tells too many stories. It is obvious he is simply doing what he is told to do -- which is a shame, since at his best, he is one of the top play-by-play men out there.
Joe Beninati has a very different style -- he is more low-key, similar to a baseball announcer. The passion often seems missing from his voice, even after a big goal -- and like anyone working on a Versus broadcasts, the stories and anecdotes are distracting.
Still, do not blame the play-by-play men -- they are simply doing what they are told.
With any luck, Versus will realize the errors of their ways. If not, there is reason for their low regular season television ratings. In the playoffs, fans have no choice -- watch Versus or watch no hockey at all.
But in the regular season, Center Ice offers dozens of games each week from which to choose. And if Versus wants to improve their ratings, making the game easier for the die-hard fan to follow is essential.