TORONTO - There are a few types of hockey fans who may want to pony up $50 for a digital subscription to NHL Gamecenter Live.
There are those who really missed hockey during the lockout and are ready to watch a ton of games — but don't have cable TV.
Others will want to sign up so they can watch games on the go, on a smartphone or tablet.
And there are the hockey fans who don't often win the battle for the TV's remote control and end up catching just the highlights instead.
With NHL Gamecenter Live, hockey fans can stream any game on a PC, smartphone, tablet, or a TV via a video game system or a set-top box, including the Apple TV, Boxee and Roku.
To encourage fans to sign up this year, the digital subscription package is discounted to $50 for the shortened season (last year it was $160 for the full season).
Technically you're supposed to get streaming access to all the NHL games on any given night but there's one major asterisk: there are blackout rules to be aware of. To prevent NHL Gamecenter Live from cannibalizing TV broadcast ratings, you can't stream games involving your local team. For example, users in Toronto can't access Maple Leafs games. Nationally televised games are also unavailable through NHL Game Center, which is a bummer for cord-cutters without cable TV.
Features vary depending on what platform you choose to stream from but on the PC, there's a lot more to the experience than just choosing a game to watch.
You can turn on the picture-in-picture feature to watch one game on the full screen and another in a smaller box in the corner. Or you can split your screen into four boxes and follow four games at once. It's quick and easy to manually switch between all the different games that are ongoing, or pick a game that's already ended.
The game can be controlled PVR style, so you can pause and rewind a play. If tuning into a game late, you can choose to start watching live or start at the beginning of the match.
You can also watch condensed versions of games you missed — with all the boring stuff snipped out — which typically run a little over 10 minutes.
For more control over skimming through an entire archived game, a timeline at the bottom of the screen marks some of the highlights that can be clicked on and instantly accessed, including goals and scoring chances.
An NHL Gamecenter subscription also offers access to a catalogue of more than 800 "classic" games covering the past 50-plus years of NHL action.
Quality with a fast Internet can be very good. At a glance, the sharpness can almost pass for an HD broadcast but the smoothness of the frame rate isn't quite on par with what's seen on TV. And you may have to deal with sporadic quality issues, as the video degrades due to momentarily blips with your Internet connection, particularly if you have an inconsistent WiFi network. You can choose from one of five levels of stream quality to either adapt to a slower Internet connection or to limit how much data is used while streaming.
It's estimated that the highest quality setting will chew threw about six gigabytes of data per game, or as little as half a gigabyte per match on the lowest settings. Mobile users will want to use WiFi whenever possible when streaming to avoid large data charges. Even home users should consider that watching a few games a week could result in a major bandwidth overage charge.
For hockey fans who aren't already getting enough access to games they can watch, $50 isn't a bad price to pay for NHL Gamecenter Live, which can be used on so many platforms at home or on the go. Just make sure the blackout conditions are acceptable to you, don't expect perfect HD quality, and assume you'll have the odd technical blip that degrades video quality from time to time.