The NHL announced earlier this week that its NHL GameCenter Live product is now available for a reduced price of $119, and that games will now be able to be streamed to the Apple iPad.
For most of the past 15 years, the only way to access (most) out-of-market NHL games was via a TV-based package, called NHL Center Ice. First available only on DirecTV, Center Ice is now available via virtually every cable system. It’s a good product, but somewhat limited. Cable operators typically offer only one HD channel, leaving the rest of the games broadcasting in SD. Only one broadcast (home or away) is normally available for each game (the Canadiens’ occasionally available French-language RDS broadcasts a nice exception).
Enter NHL’s GameCenter Live. Over the course of the past few years, the product’s quality has improved dramatically, and now each game is typically available in HD (720p resolution), both home and away broadcasts. Up to 40 games are available each week (subject to regional/blackout restrictions). Plus, the service provides access to the NHL Vault, which offers classic games (from the 1960s to present), condensed games (10-12 minutes of highlights) and a 3-year archive of full games dating back to the 2007-08 season. Needless to say, the available content is quite deep. I particularly enjoyed checking out the Montreal Canadiens’ New Year’s Eve game against the Central Red Army back in 1979, as well as watching a bit of Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings taking on the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Seven of the 1993 Western Conference Finals. The depth/breadth of the offering was truly astounding, and I’ll surely be going back to watch again and again.
The first and most obvious question has to do with picture quality, which depends largely on the speed of the end user’s (your) Internet connection. Running NHL GameCenter Live on an iMac over the Verizon FIOS system (via a wireless Airport Extreme base station), I was able to connect at 3000kbps, which delivered an absolutely pristine picture to my desktop. The video stream is consistently smooth (with no perceptible interruptions), and the sound quality is also very clear and sharp.
Without the benefit of an iPad, I was unable to test NHL GameCenter Premium, which enables NHL GameCenter Live customers to stream games. But I do have a Sony PlayStation 3, and with their application (also $9.99, but free for PlayStation Plus customers), I was able to stream games in HD directly to my television. The interface is very smooth, and makes it easy to either watch in-progress games either live or from the beginning (time-shifting so you don’t miss any action). The picture quality is very good, though not quite as sharp as on the iMac (despite the fact that the PS3 is connected by ethernet to the FIOS router, while the iMac is connected wirelessly). Interruptions were few and far between; over the course of two full periods of action (I watched last night’s scintillating Rangers-Canucks game), the video stream hiccuped only a couple of times, and only for a half-second or so each time.
Perhaps most impressively, NHL GameCenter Live actually does a better job dealing with frame rate issues than does Major League Baseball’s similar product, MLB.TV, which also delivers home/away broadcasts in 720p HD. MLB.TV actually holds a number of critical advantages, most notably that the lion’s share of the broadcast is delivered via one camera (way out in center field, focusing on the pitcher/batter/catcher, with the crowd in the stands usually fairly sedentary). As a result, the picture doesn’t need to change anywhere near as dramatically as does the picture in a high-speed hockey broadcast. But without question, the frame rate issues were far more disturbing for me when watching MLB.TV during the 2010 season than while watching NHL GameCenter Live. In other words, dealing with some very distinct disadvantages, the NHL GameCenter Live product is as good if not better than MLB.TV (this was true whether watching on the iMac or PS3).
Now just $119, NHL GameCenter Live is a tremendous value for displaced hockey fans, because it now means that virtually every home broadcast of their favorite team will now be available in HD. And for fantasy hockey fans – or general fans who simply want to watch the best game of the night, every night – it’s a boon as well. Flipping from game to game, it’s incredibly easy to move back and forth through the highlights, essentially editing your own customized version of the NHL Network’s NHL On The Fly. And for fans able to stream to a PS3 or iPad, the product’s utility is even greater. I highly recommend it.