Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Lord Stanley's Strap

A piece in today's WSJ called NHL Playoffs: Hockey Night in...America? detailed how this year's playoffs may afford the NHL the best chance to capture national interest in the US for many years:

The 10-year, $2 billion deal the NHL signed with Comcast Corp.'s NBC Universal unit last year gave the league both much-needed capital and a partner with both the will and the ability to take the NHL as seriously as it takes itself. For the first time in the NHL's 95-year history, every playoff game will be televised nationally, with most of the games appearing on networks that are available in at least 80% of homes with cable TV. And the league may be ripe for growth. NHL telecasts on NBC's channels reached 14.9 million viewers this year, up 14% from last season.

That exposure will give hockey its first legitimate chance to be followed nationally throughout the playoffs, instead of being a tribal affair which even devout fans tune out once their favorite teams are eliminated. As the league's chief executive, John Collins, said Monday, it allows "hockey fans to act like hockey fans"—something they haven't always done. "When there was no national broadcast, a lot of fans really didn't have an option," said the NHL's often dour commissioner Gary Bettman, who was downright giddy during a news conference Monday in New York. "Now they do."

Few sports experience the up-tick in quality the NHL does when the playoffs begin. Fighting virtually stops, skating speeds up, hits at center ice intensify and goals become precious. "Nothing has the pace or the urgency of playoff hockey," said Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports, which will show games on its broadcast network and cable channels NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) and CNBC. In the first two rounds, the NHL Network, the league-owned cable channel, will also show a handful of games.

First off, that Lazarus guy is on to something: there is nothing better in sport than the NHL playoffs. And while I would prefer to see the local squad still playing, whether the Wild are in or not, I will be watching as much playoff puck as I can.

Second off, it's a great relief to all us diehard hockey fan to not only see the NHL playoffs more available for viewing than ever before, but to also no longer have to suffer the indignity of watching them on something called "Versus." Sometimes the name does matter and NBC Sports Network sounds a hell of a lot better than Versus.

So far, the opening night is living up to expectations. We had Philly’s dramatic rally to erase a three-goal deficit and win in overtime in Pittsburgh. We had the Predators of Nashville turning away the hated Red Wings. And early in the second, the eighth seeded Kings and top seeded Canucks are tied at one. The puckering of the Canuck’s fans, which was deafening in last year’s Finals, is already apparent. They’re scared and so far their team is playing that way. Long live the Kings.