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As NHL readies for its return from lockout, TV viewers may not come back as quickly

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Hockey fans will click their bitterness or forgiveness over the NHL lockout by whether they tune into the games on TV.

Then again, if the shortened season ends with, say, a Rangers-Red Wings final, even the most aggrieved of them might have a hard time staying away.

Television viewership bounced back—eventually—after the last lockout, one that wiped out an entire season. So there's certainly precedent that the sport's ratings can weather the lost games and perceived greed of a work stoppage.

"Hope the passion for hockey bubbles back to the surface very quickly," NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said Tuesday. "The hockey fan is a passionate group, and we're cautiously optimistic they'll come back. It won't be instant. You've got to regain the trust, regain the passion."

History also shows playoff matchups can swing momentum in either direction.

When the first two Stanley Cup finals after the lockout were Carolina-Edmonton and Anaheim-Ottawa, viewership cratered. Then the league hit a favourable stretch of large-market, big-name teams, with series that lasted at least six games, and ratings spiked.

While still well below viewership for the NBA and Major League Baseball, hockey's TV audiences in recent years were quite healthy, in many cases matching or exceeding pre-lockout levels in an era of ever-increasing entertainment options. Now, for the second time in less than a decade, the NHL must make that climb back again.

According to Nielsen, non-cable regular-season games averaged 1.7 million viewers during the 2003-04 season, the last before the previous lockout. Once hockey returned, the average was 1.4 million in 2005-06.

By last season, that number had rebounded to 1.6 million.

When this year's lockout-shortened slate opens Saturday, NBC will show the Los Angeles Kings raising their championship banner, then regional coverage of Blackhawks-Kings or Penguins-Flyers. The network plans to show the most hockey since it started televising the league after the last lockout, with 14 regular-season windows for games.

Including cable partner NBC Sports Network, the NBC Sports Group will air 70 regular-season games.

The payoff to the company's commitment to the sport will hinge on whether fans flock back—and if so, how quickly. Appealing playoff matchups would help in that regard.

"We know going into this that an all-Canadian Stanley Cup final would be different than a Boston Bruins-Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup final," Flood said. "That's just the basics of market size."

The Bruins' Game 7 victory in 2011 earned the highest rating for an NHL game in 37 years—and that was, in fact, against a Canadian team in the Vancouver Canucks. That followed strong numbers for finals involving the Red Wings, Penguins, Flyers and Blackhawks.

"You're only as good as the matchups and the quality of play on the ice," Flood said.

The NBA came out of its lockout last season with high ratings for a shortened schedule, proving the value of appealing stars and story lines—strengths the NHL believes it has, too. But the timing of basketball's work stoppage may have minimized any negative impact, or even helped. The NBA opened on Christmas, with many now suggesting the league should do that every year. Hockey may find itself competing against a more cluttered landscape.

Viewership was down for last year's Stanley Cup final between the Kings and Devils, but for the first three rounds of the playoffs, the average audience was the largest since 1997 (when the population was smaller).

"It's the casual viewer that became part of something special last year and got caught up in the excitement and the drama of the playoffs—we've got to get them back," Flood said.

NBC announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick sees as a good sign the number of people who have shown up to watch teams practice.

"The energy from the fans is heartening and exciting," he said.

Those are the core fans, and Flood is confident they will return fast—partly because he knows one well. His father was a hockey coach.

"He used to get mad and say how awful that they're not playing hockey, and 'I'm not coming back,'" Flood said. "Now he understands it's business. If he wants to watch hockey, he's got to get back in front of the set, because he loves the game of hockey. I think that is a big group out there that loves hockey, frustrated that it happened, but once the puck is dropped, they want to see their teams."

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