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Fans cheer prior to the start of game 2 of the NHL Western Conference quarter-final at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on May 3, 2013. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Fans cheer prior to the start of game 2 of the NHL Western Conference quarter-final at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on May 3, 2013. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Rogers to expand hockey lineup with marquee matchups on Sunday nights Add to ...

Saturday’s dominion as the de facto hockey night in Canada, a tradition that stretches back more than a half-century, is about to be lessened as Rogers Communications Inc. readies a marquee hockey broadcast for Sunday nights.

The NHL for several years has eyed Sunday night as a prime time for additional hockey to be broadcast to Canadians, inspired by the ratings bonanza that is NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the No. 1 program of any kind in the United States.

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Expansion of hockey through the weekend to Sunday night was part of the Canadian broadcast and multimedia rights discussions that led to Rogers winning its blockbuster $5.2-billion, 12-year deal with the NHL.

“There’s definitely a plan with Rogers to introduce that next year,” NHL chief operating officer John Collins said in a recent interview. “It’s going to be one of the national nights.”

Rogers is mostly mum so far. Scott Moore, president of broadcast at Rogers Media, declined comment and a Sportsnet spokeswoman said the company is in the “preliminary stage of our planning and [has] nothing to confirm regarding our broadcast at this time.”

Sunday will be a showcase program, even if it is not yet sketched out.

“Too early for details on what Sunday night will look like,” NHL spokesman Gary Meagher said. “Safe to say it will be a ‘marquee’ matchup.”

Hockey Night in Canada, the long-standing flagship on CBC, will continue, produced by Rogers and broadcast for four years on CBC, with the Hockey Night brand expanded beyond CBC. The fate of Hockey Night, CBC and bombastic hockey analyst Don Cherry attracted most of the attention when the rights deal was unveiled three weeks ago.

All said, however, Hockey Night doesn’t have the same hold over Canadians during the long winter in week-to-week ratings as it does as a symbol and a touchstone in its mythic status in the country’s collective, atavistic imagination.

In the latest ratings from BBM Canada, for the week ended Dec. 1, Hockey Night was the No. 9 program in Canada, drawing 2.09 million viewers, well behind the No. 1 show, American police procedural Criminal Minds on CTV with 2.66 million.

The second half of the Hockey Night broadcast, which begins at 10 p.m. (EST), did not crack the top 30. A Toronto Maple Leafs game on Wednesday on TSN was No. 26 with 1.21 million.

Even on the first Saturday of the NHL season, Hockey Night didn’t reach No. 1, sliding in behind American sitcom The Big Bang Theory in No. 2.

It suggests there is room or experimentation, that Saturday night isn’t necessarily the sole locus for hockey broadcasting.

The success of football on Sunday night in the United States is the beacon that appears replicable with hockey here. It is no coincidence Collins’s grounding in pro sports came in the NFL, where he spent 15 years and rose to senior vice-president of marketing and sales, before moving to the NHL in 2006.

Football had appeared on Sunday nights on ESPN from 1987 through 2005, but moving Sunday night to a network broadcast, after a day full of football games, didn’t seize everyone like a sure-fire hit.

NBC began Sunday Night Football in 2006, and in 2011-12, it reached the No. 1 spot on television and held it again in 2012-13, drawing 10.33 million weekly viewers among the valued 18 to 49 demographic, trouncing the No. 2 The Big Bang Theory’s 7.84 million.

A challenge for the NHL will be the NFL, said Rick Powers, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

In the months the regular seasons overlap (October through December), timing of broadcasts and matchups will be important.

“Most hockey fans also like the NFL – and there are a lot more NFL pools than NHL pools – and the NFL will be getting to the playoffs,” Powers said.

Come January, though, “Rogers will be fine,’ Powers added, noting Rogers does have the option to start Sunday night hockey in January rather than October.

With a Sunday night program, Rogers aims to create “appointment viewing” that, if popular, will be a hit with advertisers, too, as the company scraps to recoup and profit from the $5.2-billion rights deal.

And in taking on the NFL, the NHL has been buoyed in recent years with business success and rising ratings, said Vijay Setlur, a lecturer in sports marketing at York University in Toronto.

“The league in the past shied away from going head-to-head with some of the bigger sports properties like the NFL. Perhaps they were a bit tentative. Now there’s a confidence,” Setlur said.

“It has the potential to attract a captive audience in Canada.”

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

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