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(DAVID DENOMA)

Usual Suspects

Crosby's absence barely moved the needle on Canadian TV broadcasts Add to ...

Sidney Crosby made a bigger comeback than white golf belts on Monday, scoring 17 goals with 30 assists in his first game back from post-concussion syndrome. (We may have missed a couple more when we briefly turned to Monday Night Football.) The Croz also fetched 1.2 million viewers for CBC which carried the game to a breathless nation.

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Twitterverse was jammed with wits proclaiming that Crosby was already ahead of Dustin Penner/Todd Bertuzzi/Matt Stajan in the Art Ross hunt. TV’s hair-and-teeth brigade lavished praise on No. 87 like it was Foundation 3 pancake. TV commercials featuring the Penguins capitano - delayed by his injury - rolled like freight cars every break on Hockey Night In Canada.

The theme was happy days are here again - unless you’re a hapless goalie that is. The long spring/summer/fall of Crosby fan discontent was over. It was gospel that the prolonged absence of the star had hurt the NHL. But how much did the absence of Crosby actually move the needle on Canadian TV broadcasts?

Not very much according to numbers supplied to Usual Suspects by TSN, Sportsnet and CBC. TSN’s national games are bang-on the same number recorded this time last fall - averaging 709,000 viewers through the past weekend. CBC’s HNIC has a similar tale to tell. The early game of the doubleheader is up 9 per cent (2.145 million) from same time 2010 with the late game down 13 per cent to 931,000. The Hockey Tonight pregame is up 14 per cent over 2010 to 744,000.

Over at Sportsnet’s regional channels, the numbers are similar. The Toronto Maple Leafs (who started hotter than Ashton Kutcher’s e-mail) are at 109 per cent of last year’s similar ratings through the weekend. The Ottawa Senators (who started abysmally) are at 91 per cent of their number this time last year. Edmonton, another fast starter, sits at 119 per cent over last year’s rating, inconsistent Calgary sits at 86 per cent (but up in November) and Vancouver, with Stanley Cup Final hangover, is tracking at 98 per cent.

So if someone tells you that the Crosby effect was devastating to TV ratings, you can remind them that, as Tip O’Neill opined of politics, all hockey is local. As the hometown heroes go, so goes the BBM. At least till the playoffs.

The Crosby Market: While the TV and radio networks - plus their ink-stained print brethren - flocked to Pittsburgh Monday like Magi for the adoration, there may be some merit in asking who needed whom the most? The effort of the puck establishment to anoint Crosby as the hockey holy-of-holies in marketing has always had a bit of desperation to it.

While a transcendent hockey player, Crosby has yet to recreate the style of the game in his image, a la Gretzky or Orr. Neither has he been the linchpin of a great economic theory about hockey in America, as Gretzky was. Crosby does stand for all the right things in hockey’s humility culture. Tim Hortons has turned him into an IceCap icon. His comeback performance Monday was Marioesque. Yet his greatest contribution to hockey’s big picture may has been as unwilling example of the scourge of post-concussion syndrome. Hands up how marketable that is.

Can/will the Crosby brand ever ascend to Gretzky-like status, married to a movie queen, making the desert bloom hockey pucks and drawing TV ratings to the NHL? Unlikely at the moment. Especially with a concussion history lingering over him. For the sake of an NHL saddled with pouty Alex Ovechkin as a fallback position, pray for glitter to descend on Crosby’s shoulders. Or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to be traded to the Rangers or Kings.

Edmonwhere?: Why get RNH out of the City of Champions? “Edmonton is irrelevant by Canadian standards. It’s invisible by American standards.” -Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio explaining why sports stars must play in a significant market.

He Do Ron Ron: Sometimes you need a decoder ring to follow Ron MacLean at HNIC. After paying due homage to King Croz on Monday, MacLean began heavily lobbying against the outdoor Winter Classic, which was plagued by wet weather this year. (Is he singlehandedly trying to lose the Canadian TV contract with the NHL?) Then he ambushed Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero with a question about the conditions during an intermission feature. Shero wisely demurred when the HNIC host asked if the game should have been cancelled.

Not satisfied, MacLean put Shero in another spot, asking if he thought Bruin Milan Lucic’s hit on Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller on November 12 was fair (the league gave Lucic a pass). Shero again skated around the issue by saying it was “problematic”, understanding that, as GM of neither club, it wasn’t his place to rip Lucic on national TV. More so because the Bruins’ forward was not there to defend himself.

The inquisition was reminiscent of the Alex Burrows incident in 2009-2010, when MacLean and NHL exec Colin Campbell did a one-sided number on the Canucks forward who’d been accused of diving. If you want to re-open the NHL’s ruling on Lucic in a media setting it’s only fair to have him or his team represented.

Cinq For Fighting: Oh, by the way, fighting will always have a place in hockey at the Bell Centre. Just ask these Bruins and Habs fans who threw it down Monday night as Les Glorieux put up a St. Viateur bagel against Boston. (http://25stanley.com/bagarre-dans-les-estrades-du-centre-bell-au-match-canadiens-bruins.html) All it needs is Mike Milbury and his shoe to complete the picture.

Film School: Mission Impossible has often described the NHL’s quixotic quest to market itself in the U.S. This time, however, Mission: Impossible describes the NHL’s first fully integrated branding partnership with a Hollywood movie. The league will integrate 30- and 60-second spots featuring game footage and scenes from the Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol beginning Friday during NBC's broadcast of the Red Wings-Bruins game. The film debuts Dec. 21, a month to the day from another debut - that of Crosby. Which many once believed a Mission Impossible as well. Now if star Tom Cruise can name his next child Sidney...

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