This whole Direct TV fiasco might speed things along. Sometimes I think that this whole thing is some sort of conspiracy job by someone to get the NHL back on ESPN.
It'd be sweet if there was some type of clause built into the NHL/VS deal that allowed an "out" if this situation continues. Doubtful that Bettman and his baffoons had the foresight to build something like that into the deal though...
There would be no out. The problem largely lies with Versus. They owe the NHL this year's rights money even if they're on no channels at all. That deal is largely worthless anyway, so I don't see why they wouldn't just breach and pay the resulting damages if ESPN actually did come calling. Which they won't.
That said, I have seen a fairly significant uptick in ESPN's NHL coverage this year. They ran an NHL preview in that useless piece of kindling they call "The Mag" (douchebags.) They also had some significant coverage on the ESPN home page. I guess it must not be time yet to shamelessly promote the NBA on ABC - you know, an entirely different network. (Who the hell fell asleep at the FTC and let that merger go through, anyway?) Maybe there's some hope for an ESPN return in the future, but you know it's mostly unlikely.