It's been a dream playoffs, so far, for the NHL on TV.
Its greatest stars - Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk - have advanced as far as the Stanley Cup final. After years in the doldrums, some of its best U.S. television markets - Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh - pushed deep into the playoffs. And the skilled on-ice product has been rewarded with some modest bumps in U.S. ratings on NBC and Versus.
Now, NBC and the NHL are set to announce an extension to their relationship for another two years, past the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and Stanley Cup playoffs.
It will likely be a continuation of the no-money-down/split-revenues-after-costs arrangement that has existed since the two sides fell into each other's arms after the NHL lockout in 2004-05.
At that time, NBC got an inexpensive property to fill out its sports schedule, while the NHL got the perfume of network respectability after locking out its players and fans for a complete season.
Despite the hiccup of NBC switching away from a playoff overtime to a Preakness Stakes prep show in 2008, the relationship has worked reasonably well for both sides.
The Winter Classic game has become just that for the two sides, drawing strong numbers on New Year's Day against the U.S. college football orgy on other networks.
NBC's broadcast of the first two games of the 2009 Stanley Cup final series averaged a 3.0 overnight rating over the weekend - translating to roughly three million households in the United States. That's up 11 per cent from the 2.7 for NBC's first two Stanley Cup telecasts last year (Games 3 and 4 of Detroit Red Wings-Pittsburgh Penguins).
While Hockey Night in Canada can and often does deliver as many Canadian viewers for a playoff game with one-tenth of the U.S. population, the number represents some small progress within conventional broadcasters.
Consider that the season finale of a show such as NBC's Medium pulled a 2.3 rating (adults 18 to 49) last Monday, tying it with a rerun of CBS's CSI: Miami.
NBC has to be a star for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, as the cozy no-rights deal he negotiated with the network led to the league losing all-sports network ESPN and having to go to Versus (then Outdoor Life Network) as a U.S. cable carrier.
As of press time, NHL vice-president Bill Daly had not responded to a request for comment.
Q & A
Journalists know that the way to get a good answer is to ask a good question. And Ron MacLean was one question short of getting a great answer from Bettman in their little chat last Tuesday on HNIC.
MacLean was hot on the issue of teams such as the Calgary Flames playing with as few as 15 skaters for the final five regular-season games because of their salary cap management.
Should we not change the rules in the final two weeks to prevent compromising the integrity of the games? MacLean asked. Bettman rightly responded that everyone knew the rules going in, so tough luck if you gambled and lost.
"So you are okay with 15 skaters for the Flames?" MacLean asked. Said Bettman: "I'm okay with teams making the choices. I didn't determine that they had 15 skaters,. They did by using up their cap space."
At this point, MacLean needed only ask Bettman if he'd read article 16(b)(4) of the collective bargaining agreement: "Absent an 'emergency' (medical, physical, death in the family), the CBA requires a minimum of 18 skaters and two goalies each game."
Bettman would have had to explain why the league let Calgary violate the CBA. Why it permitted competitive balance compromised in the crucial last days of the season. Why opponents and fans were cheated by the undermanned Flames.
But MacLean inexplicably switched topics, leaving Bettman to escape his own snare.
Might have been enlightening for a commissioner who's so caught up in sticking to procedures and practices - if your name is Jim Balsillie.
Grin And Bear It
Watching Bettman's charm offensive this week with the media put Usual Suspects in mind of the great Saturday Night Live sketch of 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace (Harry Shearer) interviewing edgy lawyer Nathan Thurm (Martin Short) after complaints about the Minkman novelty company.
MW: Pardon me for saying this, but you seem defensive.
NT: I'm not being defensive! You're the one who's being defensive! Why is always the other person who's being defensive? Have you ever asked yourself that? Why don't you ask yourself that?
MW: [holds out paper]This is an affidavit.
NT: I know that!
MW: Well, let me finish. This is an affidavit from a woman who has severe nerve damage, on her upper thigh, from sitting on one of your defective whoopee cushions. Here, read it.
NT: You read it!
MW: Well, I have read it.
NT: So, why do I have to read it?
MW: Well, it does pertain to your company.
NT: I know that! Why wouldn't I know that? It's my company, I'm quite aware of that! [looks at the camera]Is it me? It's him, right?