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Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, celebrates with teammate Washington Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom (19), of Sweden, after scoring a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period of an NHL hockey game Monday, Dec. 6, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez) (Luis M. Alvarez/AP)
Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, celebrates with teammate Washington Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom (19), of Sweden, after scoring a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period of an NHL hockey game Monday, Dec. 6, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez) (Luis M. Alvarez/AP)

The Usual Suspects

NHL playoffs could have their own madness next year Add to ...

With double overtimes and improbable comebacks, the 2011 playoffs have staggered a lot of people. Usual Suspects has learned that, if the NHL has its way, the 2012 playoffs may be staggered. With the new U.S. broadcast contract allowing NBC and partner Comcast exclusivity over the playoffs, the league wants to take a page from NCAA March Madness and stagger the start times of the games so they don't all go to intermission at the same time.

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Sources say that spacing the start times of games will mean non-stop action for fans - and oblivion for creaky intermission features such as the sweaty player interview and the eccentric analyst in the loud suit. It works perfectly in the early rounds of the annual U.S. college basketball blowout, sending viewers seamlessly from one game to another as a period or half ends. (Plus, you can never get enough of the anthems.) Interruptions from panels and experts are kept to a blessed minimum, and advertisers know fans will not leave the TV for 15 minutes to water the horses or quench their thirst in the kitchen.

There are hurdles to overcome in implementing the format. Canadian broadcasters have to be onside with the plan. CBC, in particular, makes a lot of money from a certain intermission feature, and then there are the constraints of news programming that already resents being punted for the eight weeks of the postseason. Asking Hockey Night in Canada to delay the start of a game for 15 to 20 minutes so NBC and Comcast can start a U.S.-based game would produce political issues in the Mel Hurtig lounge.

Arena availabilities, time-zone issues and team preferences could also be a factor. But the league wants a festival-like feeling around the playoffs and intends to make it happen.

Pass the Prilosec

The recent play of the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens - the only two Canadian playoff teams - has been painful for their fans. It's also causing reflux in the offices of CBC. The loss of either or both teams from the postseason would be a mighty blow to ratings at a time when CBC needs to maximize its ownership of the NHL's Canadian rights.

Ratings for the Montreal and Vancouver games have ranged from 1.9 million to 2.8 million a game through Saturday. Ratings for comparable games of U.S. teams have been a quarter to a third of that total. While the prospects without Canadian teams are dire, CBC is not as dependent on hockey revenue as it was even five years ago, when hockey constituted more than 80 per cent of total ad revenues. That figure today is closer to 50 per cent.

Still, with a possible Conservative majority government on the horizon and the seemingly hopeless task of hanging on to its Canadian NHL rights, CBC had better have a good Plan B in the vault. In the coming weeks, we'll examine just what options lie ahead for the public broadcaster and sports.

Dialling Darwin

We've been listening to the evolution of sports radio on TSN Radio 1050. Mike Richards. Mike Hogan. Jim Tatti. Steve Kouleas. Hmm. If that's evolution then Usual Suspects is a creationist. What it does indicate, however, is the lack of new sports broadcasting talent in the land. Outside of Bryan Hayes, it's otherwise been a green launch for TSN Radio: recycle, recycle, recycle.

No wonder every print guy without a speech impediment is being thrust into the breach. Proving it's one thing to want to change the same old-same-old on your TV or radio show, it's another thing to find someone new and worth hearing.

By the way, why has TSN not tried the thoroughly annoying Jay Onrait on radio? His faux Kenny Mayne impersonation would fit far better on radio - where shtick is king - than it does on TV. And it would spare everyone in the Pacific and Mountain time zone Onrait's tortured audition for Last Comic Standing on TSN's SportsCentre.

Product placement

Finally, a thought on the NBC and Comcast convergence with the NHL. Lots of Toronto Maple Leafs like Joffrey Lupul are available for cross-promotion in early April for Golf Channel on NBC. "@JLupul: First round of golf in 2 years! 3 putt on one tho."

Prong gone

The Easter miracle of Chris Pronger's resurrection brought out Twitwits. Adam Proteau on Prototype: "I get the sense Pronger would be playing today even if the only parts of him that worked were his sailor mouth and one leg." Phocks81: "Glad to see Pronger decided to show up today to join the rest of the Flyers with mailing in the last half of the season." @sbaicker: "Why is it on this night, Chris Pronger plays and we dip the bitter herb into salt water? KingDonutI Donut King (Tyler): "Pronger doing something stupid? Tell me it's not so."

Bluff called

In case you missed it, ESPN has withdrawn all poker programming and advertising for the time being in the wake of the U.S. indictments against three of the largest poker online sites for money laundering. According to published reports, Fulltiltpoker.com and Pokerstars.net alone spent about $35-million (U.S.) in advertising in 2010. The Feds allege the offshore sites were taking offshore profits and laundering them in the United States via the import of jewellery and … wait for it … golf balls. Must have been Pentas to cost that much.

The bust coincides with a general lowering of ratings for TV poker in North America lately. But don't assume the legal action is meant to stave off the demon gambling in America. This is all about the money, hot gambling, and the Internal Revenue Service wants its piece of the George Washingtons generated by Americans that have been going offshore.

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