NHL GameCenter: One Man's Review

I'm a shill, but at least I'm an honest shill. There's not much I won't do for freebies, no principle I won't sell out, no bridge I won't dynamite. You know those old C&B comment-writers you don't see anymore? Yeah, I traded their kidneys for a free set of $800 skates. And I don't even skate. Like I said, I sell out.

So selling out for an opportunity to watch free hockey games was a pretty easy call. The joy of hockey, plus the joy of abandoning all my principles for petty personal gain? That's a no-brainer! Especially since it didn't actually involve selling out that much.

The NHL was courteous enough to give us a free subscription to NHL GameCenter (oh, I'm sorry, NHL GameCenter LIVE!) for the 2010-11 season, and as our resident Non-Edmonton-Based Correspondent who Does Have Cable and Who Sometimes, Against Better Judgement, Actually Watches Oilers Games, I've been getting great value out of that particular freebie. The cost of this free GameCenter was that I give you all an honest appraisal of the merits, and if necessary the demerits, of GameCenter.

Well, you guys know me. I'm always happy to point out the demerits of anything. So after the jump, one man's review of NHL GameCenter LIVE!

For those who aren't familiar with NHL GameCenter, it's an online service that allows you to watch live NHL action with pausing and rewinding powers like it were on your PVR, review old games, and even delve into "the NHL Vault" if your life isn't complete without watching an Atlanta - New York Islanders game from 2004. The video quality is variable, and can be set to either a value of your choice or to automatically detect what your Internet connection can handle. If your connection is up to it, though, you'll get smooth high definition with good sound that you wouldn't be afraid to watch on your big-screen TV. There are no possible complaints about the visual quality of watching a game on GameCenter: it's just sublime.

As I indicated, you can also rewind mid-game to re-watch something you missed the first time. Goals, hits, if you're Bruce maybe a penalty the referee missed, you've got options. Then there's a little "live" button you can click to get back to real-time action. I'm an interface snob but this is all surprisingly well-done. My complaints are along the lines of little, niggling problems: for example, I have to log in again every time I go to watch a game. Meaning I go to NHL.com, click my game, GameCenter loads, I log in, GameCenter loads again, and by this point the puck dropped a minute and a half ago. This could be solved by going to the site a minute and a half earlier but that's ninety seconds I might never get back!

There is one particularly annoying technical limitation, and while it might not matter to you it matters to me. The online feed is invariably delayed compared to the television feed. It seems to vary between games: sometimes it'll be a few seconds, sometimes a minute and a half. So if you are, for example, hanging out in our Copper & Blue game day threat (and you better be), you'll get Bruce's fury about a no-call before you actually see what the no-call was. Delays suck, although it is handy seeing a dozen posts going "WOO! EBERLE!" and knowing that I should probably pay attention to #14 on this rush that's developing.

The biggest problem with NHL GameCenter is probably out of the league's hands for the moment: rights issues.

I'm an Oilers fan living in Vancouver, and quite frequently I'd like to see the Oilers play the Canucks (well, not like to see it as such). Unfortunately, when the game is broadcast on the west coast, NHL GameCenter doesn't carry the game in my region. It's not a classic blackout: the Canucks could be playing in Baghdad but if it's on Sportsnet Pacific, I'm out of luck. If it's on CBC, I'm out of luck. I can't even watch the archive of the game for 48 hours. These are conditions from the NHL's broadcasters, not the NHL itself, and it seems unfair to blame the league. But no review of GameCenter would be complete without mentioning this issue. It makes the service that much less valuable: a fan in Florida who never gets the Oilers on television might be fine, but for those of us still in the Northwest Division it means GameCenter does a lot less good.

Additionally, and this is such a small point it hardly bears mentioning, but most intermission shows are only available through the away team's feed. For a game in Edmonton that's on Sportsnet West, that means you don't get to watch Bob Stauffer's suit jacket straining to escape into orbit. Okay, this might not be a big negative, but it's something to be aware of.

It's worth bearing that problem in mind, because GameCenter isn't cheap. The full GameCenter experience runs $169 for the season, or $20.99 per month. It's not a bad price, but it looks a lot less attractive when you're going through the television calendar picking out the games you'll be able to watch. The NHL Vault, the most unique part of the GameCenter experience, is available separately for $4.95 a month.

It might be money well spent, depending on where you are and how many games you'll watch. If you keep your pulse on the NHL enough that you'll watch any game no matter who's playing, you're definitely get your money's worth. And there truly is no better way to experience a game when you're stuck in the office, at least now that Rod Phillips is retired. NHL GameCenter is ultimately very good, but imperfect. Unfortunately, those imperfections are enough to make for real frustration.

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