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Is the NHL headed for a lockout?
Is the NHL headed for a lockout?

The Usual Suspects

NHL on the verge of entering big time Add to ...

The last time the NHL was riding this high, in the estimation of American public opinion anyway, was during the spring of 1994 when the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. The league promptly celebrated its success by locking out its players for the first three months of the next season, thereby squandering almost all of its hard-won momentum.

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Fast forward to the present. Ratings for the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs are hitting record levels with four of the top-6 NBC Sports Channel games ever telecast. On a local level, the New York Rangers (playing in the No. 1 media market in the U.S.) have reached the finals in the Eastern Conference, while the Los Angeles Kings (No. 2 media market) are in the Western Conference finals.

Strike up Gary Bettman’s Marching Band ... we’re headed for another lockout.

Much is being made in some corners of the ascension in NHL playoff ratings and the concurrent decline in the NBA’s ratings during its just-completed first round. The NBA - beset by injuries to star players, a hangover from a lockout-shortened sprint to the postseason, and some mediocre first-round matchups - is looking a tad shopworn while the NHL is the shiny new toy. NBC putting every game on one of its national networks hasn’t hurt, either.

The NHL is not about to surmount the NBA in popularity based on this year’s ratings. The NBA is still comfortably ahead of the NHL on all the judges’ cards. But the first three weeks of the NHL playoffs on NBC were the most-viewed on network TV since 1998. Game 6 of the Boston/Washington series chalked up the largest non-final audience since 1997. Local ratings in Los Angeles and New York are setting records.

Over at the NBA, ratings for 21 of the first 29 NBA playoff games on ESPN/ABC/ TNT declined compared to last year. The Utah-San Antonio and Los Angeles Clippers-Memphis matchups on May 2 were both down over 40 per cent from the comparable games in 2010. On the same day, reports Sports Media Watch, the three-overtime Washington/New York Rangers game drew the highest rating (1.85 million viewers) for a second-round U.S. cable game since 2000.

The NBA, with better second-round matchups such as Boston/ Philadelphia and Los Angeles Lakers/ Oklahoma City, should recover its equilibrium. With two teams from the NYC area and one from Los Angeles in Round 3, the NHL is likely to keep seeing big numbers, too. A New York- Los Angeles final series would no doubt set new benchmarks for the league. The Big Time.

Tart Torts

Rangers coach John Tortorella is riding high these days, too, getting his team into the third round. The New York sports crowd is eating out of his hand. So Torts would seem like a shoo-in to be the coach of Team USA at the 2014 Olympics, right?

Apparently not. Tortorella’s belligerent bedside manner with the media is now being cited as a reason American team officials won’t select him for the prestigious position. With his brusque manner and hostile attitude, the Rangers bench boss makes Ron Wilson, the ex-Leafs coach, seem like Zooey Deschanel. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHamrJkm6k “I'm not going to give you updates on lineups or injuries, so let's just move right by that,” sums up the Tortorella M.O. Plus swearing.

The thinking goes that Team USA officials don’t want the extra headaches of a combustible coach at an Olympics. There are enough problems without getting the entire media corps on your case, too. Gee, the media keeping a coach from getting a prestigious hockey gig? What is this, Montreal?

Ax Me No Questions

Then there’s the PR approach from Canadian John Axford of the Milwaukee Brewers. Axford blew his first save in 49 attempts Friday night. When the media came to ask the amiable Canuck about losing the third-longest save streak, they were greeted by a facetious note by the media-friendly pitcher explaining that his performance had caused his wife to go into premature labour, but that he promised to put his head down to start a new streak.

Here is Axford's note

Maybe Axford can help Tortorella with “All I can do is begin a new streak and keep my head up. cliche... cliche... another cliche. Gotta’ go.”

Update: “@johnaxford People keep asking...so I'll let you know...the doctors stopped the premature labor. Our son is due June 28th, so he needs to stay put!”

Stage fright

Manchester City rescued its first Premiership title in 44 years with two stunning goals in extra time over Queens Park Rangers, who borrowed the BLOCK party defence from the NHL, pulling all eleven players back into the box for much of the second half. But not before Sky Sports legend Martin Tyler asked live if City was choking. “Are they going to fluff their lines in the final act of the drama?” Imagine an NHL announcer, any NHL announcer, being so bold as to suggest a favoured NHL club was gagging? Of course favourites never lose in the NHL.

Sorry Wrong Number

Finally, every reporter’s nightmare. Florida Times-Union writer Vito Stellino went to Twitter to recommend a piece by another writer on the rebirth of the USFL. He kindly included a link in the tweet. A link to a porn site. It took 40 minutes for anyone to realize the mistake. Till then the USFL was apparently going to be a very different football league.

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