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Column: Who knew NHL playoffs would score so big with fans after lockout-shortened season?

Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) collides with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty (8) as they reach for the puck during the third period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Western Conference finals, Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

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Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) collides with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty (8) as they reach for the puck during the third period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Western Conference finals, Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The season that almost wasn't has turned out better than anyone dared expect.

The NHL still ranks fourth among North America's five major professional sports leagues, but don't look now—hockey is gaining ground again.

TV ratings for the playoffs are through the roof, relatively speaking, thanks to scintillating games and a final four—Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Pittsburgh—that any league would love to have.

Last weekend's Bruins-Penguins matchup handily beat baseball's time-tested game of the week, Red Sox-Yankees, in a head-to-head matchup—nearly 2-to-1 in the desirable 18-49 age demographic, and that was after a lockout-shortened NHL regular season that already saw ratings climb by 18 per cent. Telecasts in a few towns are setting records and even approaching NFL levels.

What were the odds of that happening last winter, when the league's owners and players squared off across a bargaining table, hell-bent on driving off fans and sacrificing the schedule to labour strife for the second time in less than 10 years—and the third during commissioner Gary Bettman's 20 years in charge?

Just as improbable, perhaps, is how they got from there to here.

"After the 2004-05 lockout, hockey changed in lots of important ways," Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports and the man most responsible for the improved TV product, said Tuesday. "It got faster. There was less clutching and grabbing. The stars became stars again. Our job was figuring out how to showcase those skills, to make them accessible to even the most casual fan."

Fifteen years ago, Bill Clinton became the first sitting U.S. president to make it down to the rink by taking in a playoff game between the Buffalo Sabres and his hometown Washington Capitals. During a quick interview, Clinton said he was struck by how much faster, rougher and dramatic the game seemed sitting in the stands than looking in on TV.

"I explained that's no surprise," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said then, "since time after time, our research tells us we've got the best in-person experience in sports."

For the longest time, that was hockey's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The NHL played its games in arenas filled to more than 90 per cent of capacity, on average, but almost nobody watched it on TV.

There was a perception that despite its national footprint, hockey was a regional game; strong where it's played and barely a blip on the radar screen everywhere else. Even more troubling was research suggesting that among the NHL's target audience of 70 million fans in the United States and Canada, more than two-thirds quit watching once their favourite team was eliminated.

Compounding the problem was Bettman's sometimes-haphazard search for a TV partner. ESPN and FOX both took turns, without much success, and hockey appeared doomed to remain a niche sport. Things were so bad when the league threw in with NBC in 2004 that it received no money up-front and instead agreed to only a revenue-sharing deal.

In hindsight that may turn out to be the smartest deal Bettman made. Last year, the NHL renewed with NBC through 2021, this time for a reported $2 billion in rights fees. Based on early returns, both sides have plenty to like about the deal.

NBC needed live sports programming and it's given the NHL top-shelf treatment in return, borrowing ideas from other sports and coming up with a few innovations of its own.

This year's best launch was a weekly Wednesday night regular-season game between teams—as Flood put it—"that really hated each other."

For the second year in a row, every playoff game is available nationally—what he calls the "March Madness effect"—building momentum and retaining more of the "avid" NHL fans that used to depart once their teams did.

Wider screens, high-definition broadcasts, improved audio and slow-motion replays seem tailor-made for hockey, if only because they've made the game easier to follow, even for the most casual fans.

For all that, the innovation Flood considers his best is the in-game segment called "Inside the Glass," which features analyst Pierre McGuire in a section between the benches, updating viewers in real time with information he's picked up from that unique vantage point.

"It changed the way the game was perceived at home, offering things we'd never get from an announcer two decks above the ice," Flood said. "Coaches barking orders at players, players challenging each other—that kind of access is critical.

"It's one more piece of the puzzle, like what NASCAR was doing with reporters in the pit, giving fans access to a place they weren't previously allowed. The feedback's been great," Flood chuckled. "People tell us it's like being part of a secret club."

It's been one step forward, two steps back for much of Bettman's reign.

The Winter Classic outdoor games have been a rousing success and the U.S.-Canada rivalry at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 pulled in fans the sport didn't know it had. On the flip side, the labour stoppages, ambitious expansion into non-traditional hockey towns and shortage of Canadian teams has handicapped growth.

But for the first time in a while, the sport looks up and sees nothing but clear ice ahead.

"We can't control who reaches the finals," said Flood, the son of a hockey coach and a fair college player himself, "but nobody's complaining about the way this one worked out."

___

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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