By its silence on the contractual situation of play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald, FSN Pittsburgh has opened the door to controversy and possibly the return of Mike Lange to television.
Steigerwald, who replaced Lange after the 2006 season, is in the final days of his two-year contract. New contract discussions have not begun.
This is not to suggest Steigerwald won't be back. He probably will. It could be a matter of the two sides sitting down after the season and reaching a quick agreement. But with FSN under new ownership and new management since Lange was fired, anything is possible.
FSN general manager Ted Black would not discuss the situation but indicated nothing was to be taken from the fact there have been no discussions with Steigerwald. Black has been on the job less than a month after succeeding Steve Tello.
Lange has a legion of fans, built up since he began working for the Penguins in 1974, and they have elevated him to legendary status. In the dark days of the franchise, before Mario Lemieux, he often was the best known personality and certainly the best liked.
But when Tello fired Lange in June 2006 it was not against the wishes of the Penguins. FSN is the rights holder and has final say on the announcers. But the two parties have long formed a tight partnership, and FSN would not have made the move if the Penguins strongly objected. They did not. The station and the team believed Lange's work had slipped.
When Lange was fired, FSN and the Penguins feared a massive outpouring of fan objection, similar to what happened when the Pirates fired Bob Prince 30 years earlier. Nothing of the kind took place. There was plenty of anger, but it dissipated quickly, and no one, as was the case in large numbers with Prince, took their resentment to the streets.
The era of announcers driving ratings and attracting fans -- as Lange once did -- is past. Fans are more sophisticated and allow the success of the team to drive the ratings. While Lange, who has been the team's radio voice the past two seasons, has a strong and passionate following, his absence has not affected ratings. Ratings are as good as they ever have been.
Steigerwald, who had been doing radio, made the switch easily and has done good work. He's a Pittsburgh native who grew up dreaming of doing hockey play-by-play. He teams with Bob Errey to give the Penguins a first-rate crew. They also have the same on radio with Lange and Phil Bourque.
Steigerwald did not seem fazed by the lack of a contract. "I'm focused on the rest of the season," he said. "It should be a great time. We'll talk about the contract after the season."
Lange has made a strong comeback on radio. His broadcasts are superb and possibly could lead to a conclusion that he's better on radio than television.
The Penguins and FSN are pushing the envelope in terms of attracting and keeping new viewers by what they're doing on game telecasts. Perhaps no professional sport is trying harder and coming up with more innovations than hockey. Of course, no sport needs to work harder at this than hockey, where ratings are traditionally low.
This season Errey has worked some games from ice level, between the benches. It offers a different and refreshing perspective. Errey also conducts in-game interviews, shown on tape delay, with coaches and players. Some are dreary, but others offer new insights.
The telecast went a step further last week when backup goalie Ty Conklin joined the telecast. Conklin was stationed in the runway to the Penguins locker room, not an ideal vantage point, but it was a different twist that is worth trying again.
Steigerwald and Errey have taken note of the increased audience and are aware that many are new viewers.
"There's a whole new universe of hockey fans," said Steigerwald. "Some of them don't have a sense of history of the team or an understanding of the game that the older fans have. It's important that we help educate them."
There won't be many opportunities for Steigerwald and Errey to be involved in playoff coverage. NBC and Versus will get much of the action. Here's how the television coverage shapes up:
First round: NBC has first option on weekend games and will do one game Saturday and Sunday afternoon with no other games opposite. If the Penguins are not chosen for an afternoon game, their game will be on FSN. All weekday games are on FSN.
Second round: NBC has first rights on weekend games; Versus gets two exclusive weekday games; FSN gets the remainder.
Third round (conference finals): NBC gets one game per weekend; Versus gets the rest.
Stanley Cup final: Undetermined but none will be shown on FSN.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .