We've written about how awesome NHL GameCenter is, and really, it's true. The product is far and away the most convenient tool for watching hockey, with it's DVR features, $160 price for every single game, full game replays, mobile apps and HD video quality.
But there's just one problem: you can't watch in-market games. It's a product that doesn't benefit you if you're only interested in watching your local team play hockey, and that's unfortunate, considering most NHL fans likely live in or around the city in which their favorite team plays.
The only option, then, is to buy a ridiculously expensive cable or satellite television package, even if your only desire is to watch your favorite hockey team -- and maybe the random episode of Maury or Family Feud when you find yourself home from work in the middle of a Tuesday. You don't watch anything else but sports on that $40 to $50 or even $70 to $80 per month cable plan you have, but since you live near St. Louis and love the Blues, your options are pretty limited.
You can't buy just the one or two channels that show Blues games. You can't buy GameCenter or Center Ice, because you won't get Blues games due to the local blackout. You could buy GCL and use a proxy server, but the majority of people aren't tech savvy enough to handle that -- and understandably so.
Your only other true, legitimate option is to find an illegal game stream on the Internet. Or go to a bar, which we all know is not the ideal hockey viewing experience, since you're probably the one dude in the corner watching it by yourself.
It's not that you don't want to pay for the access to games. It's been proven that when provided with convenient, legal way of consuming a product, audiences will overwhelmingly choose that option. Look at iTunes or Netflix or even Spotify. Hell, look at the current subscriber count of NHL GameCenter Live. All of those people have the alternative of viewing an illegal stream, but choose to pay the league for access anyway.
Any sports fan in their right mind would choose to watch their team on a legal, league-provided Internet stream or service. The quality isn't even comparable, it's much more convenient, you don't feel like a cheap pirate, and the NHL gets the money they deserve for their product. Everybody wins.
It's understandable why the NHL supports the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, just as every major pro sports league does. Illegal streams of their games run rampant around the Internet, and they don't want that to happen. They're losing money that way. The only thing they don't realize is that they have the power to crack down on them; power that even the passage of SOPA wouldn't provide.
All they have to do is eliminate the Draconian blackout policies that have existed since before the Internet was a thing. We understand why local blackouts still exist on NHL GameCenter Live: local broadcasters have influence, and they want everybody watching them, not the NHL's Internet feed. But the league is in control here. It's ultimately their product and they get to decide how it's viewed.
If local blackouts are eliminated, there's no need for the NHL to support silly legislation like SOPA, because there will be no need for illegal streams. People consume pirated things because it's either their only option or it's a million times more convenient than doing things legally.
The NHL can give their fans a safe, legitimate, fairly priced way of watching games -- whether they're local games or out-of-market -- and by doing so, they'll all but eliminate illegal stream usage in North America. So why haven't they done it already?
Full disclosure: Vox Media, SB Nation and this writer officially oppose SOPA and it's counterpart, PIPA.