TORONTO - Mark Messier has vivid memories of his Edmonton Oilers teammate Glenn Anderson making phone calls on the road back in the mid-1980s.
"He had a big battery pack that he was carrying around with a guitar strap and he had one of those big phones," Messier recalled. "And he might've been the only one that had a cellphone in the country."
Almost 30 years later, 83 per cent of Canadians use a mobile phone and 50 per cent own a tablet. With that in mind, Messier was on hand Wednesday as Rogers announced improvements to the NHL GameCentre Live app that will allow fans to watch more games with fewer local or regional blackout restrictions.
In previous years, a Maple Leafs fan in the Toronto area or a Canucks fan in Vancouver couldn't log onto GameCentre Live and watch a game that was being televised locally. Now, any Rogers national or regional broadcast is available on that fan's computer, tablet or smart phone — the only exceptions being games controlled regionally by TSN.
Rogers, entering the first of a 12-year exclusive Canadian national television rights deal with the NHL, said the changes would make over 50 per cent more games available to watch online. In addition to "Hockey Night In Canada," all Stanley Cup playoff games, including the final, will be accessible on GameCentre Live.
The NHL is a defendant — along with Major League Baseball — in a U.S. lawsuit over local blackout restrictions. Garber and Laumann v. the National Hockey League, et al. is challenging league blackout policies on antitrust grounds.
Rogers can only control blackouts within Canada because it does not broadcast games in the United States, where NBC Sports has national rights and regional sports networks also have a say.
Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media, said the goal was to "offer Canadians as much as we possibly can on multiple platforms (and) give them ultimate choice." He promised more announcements to come in the next 30-plus days before opening night Oct. 8, including his favourite GameCentre Live feature.
Rogers will manage GameCentre Live in Canada and sell it for $199.99 for the season, $179.999 on early-bird discount and then $129.99 for a half-season package from Jan. 1 on. Rogers wireless or Internet customers will get a free trial for the rest of 2014.
Pelley said most fans will watch games on Wi-Fi, but for those who don't, GameCentre Live counts against data limits.
A national French-language package featuring the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators will be available beginning in January, according to Rogers. That is included in GameCentre Live but can be purchased separately for $59.99.
Messier, who spoke at the event at Toronto's Eaton Centre as a "Rogers NHL Hockey Ambassador," has filmed a GameCentre Live commercial and will do more. The 53-year-old Hall of Famer who's also scouting for the Oilers and working to build a rink in the Bronx, said he likes to watch hockey on the road and on the train back from work and is glad he can.
"I can only imagine what it would've been like in the '80s to have this accessibility and for more people to have seen Wayne Gretzky for those 10 years in Edmonton in his glory scoring 215 points," Messier said. "I remember Saturday night hockey myself, playing street hockey, coming in, having TV dinner and watching the Saturday night live game. That's still happening, and it's just happening on different platforms and in different ways."
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