Settling in for what should be the best game of the new NHL season.

Washington, with 20-year-old rookie sensation Alexander Ovechkin, is playing Tuesday night at Pittsburgh, which features younger, even more-hyped rookie sensation Sidney Crosby. Insiders think this could be the rivalry that rejuvenates the game, the second coming of Magic vs. Bird, only this time on ice.

And just when you thought hockey was coming back to make nice to fans, this pops up on my TV: “To purchase this event, please call the customer service center … .”

To order the NHL’s “Center Ice” package.

At a nifty $159 for the season.

Silly me. Turns out hockey’s back to recoup as much money as possible after a labor war wiped out last season.

During the hiatus, the NHL changed television partners, from ESPN to OLN – the network that Lance Armstrong almost made famous – which my satellite system has dropped. OLN wanted too much money, the customer-service rep explains, and NBC, which will start showing a game of the week and carry some of the postseason, doesn’t come on board until mid-January.

But on this night, customers of the other satellite system are no better off. OLN is showing Tampa Bay at Philadelphia.

Some second coming Ovechkin vs. Crosby is turning out to be. The only witnesses who saw it live were in the rink or tuned to local affiliates in Washington and Pittsburgh.

“When you’re picking games in August for a TV schedule,” an NHL spokesman said, “basically you’re flying blind. We weren’t sure whether Ovechkin would show up and play for Washington, or that Crosby would wind up in Pittsburgh.”

Since we’re on the subject: How convenient was it for the league that the Penguins not only landed Crosby by winning a lottery, but that the 18-year-old heir apparent decided to move into Mario Lemieux’s house?

(Remember how that classic TV series, “Kung Fu” began each episode, with the Shaolin master telling a young David Carradine: “When you can snatch this pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to go.” Well, that’s what it’s like at the Lemieux house most mornings – except that Mario dangles a set of keys to the Range Rover.)

In any case, Crosby is proving every bit the precocious pupil, and Tuesday night was no exception. But the only reason I know all this is because Associated Press sports writer Alan Robinson is flash-messaging updates from rinkside:

He made two great plays – slipping between two Caps defensemen in the slot, “matador-like,” to score one goal, then making a “360-degree spin-o-rama blind pass from the left boards directly onto Ziggy Palffy’s stick” to set up a second goal.

Ovechkin shows plenty of the speed and skill that has him on a remarkable scoring run for a rookie – 15 goals in 21 games – but is held to a single assist in a 5-4 victory by the Penguins.

“Unreal,” Robinson marveled after the Palffy goal, “for an 18-year-old who lives at his boss’ house.”

For the time being, for those of us outside Washington and Philly, that’s as good as it gets. Salary caps have put old stars in new towns and the league has a handful of other compelling story lines: Wayne Gretzky is back, as an owner, in Phoenix; Eric Lindros is back, after eight concussions, and playing in Toronto, where he wanted to be all along; and Todd Bertuzzi is back in Vancouver, his suspension for a blindside punch that left Colorado’s Steve Moore with a concussion and broken bones in his neck commuted to time served.

How much we’ll see of any of those, though, will depend on where you live and how much you’re willing to shell out. Unlike major league baseball, attendance at hockey games is up following the lockout, suggesting the hardcore fans are back already. The new rules designed to open up play are producing better games and the shootouts used to break ties have been a hugely popular twist. At least that’s what people are telling me.

Wisely, the NHL has opted to take another turn on the Olympic stage, this time for two weeks in February in Turin, Italy. The Winter Games will again show the sport in its best light – fast, clean and wide open – becoming a kind of commercial the NHL can use, this time in earnest, to sell the faster, cleaner, more exciting brand of hockey it has finally become.

Now all the league’s higher-ups have to figure out is an easier way for the rest of us to find it.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

AP-ES-11-23-05 1239EST

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