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The gap between north and south is never as wide as when hockey enters the conversation.

At CBC Sports, they were celebrating yesterday. The ratings for the Stanley Cup playoffs came in and the numbers were big.

"It's been a great couple of years," said Nancy Lee, the head of CBC Sports. "It doesn't get much better than this for us."

But for the National Hockey League, it's the same old problem. What can be done about U.S. television audiences?

The CBC's viewership for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final fell just short of a record. Game 7 on Monday night between the Calgary Flames and the Tampa Bay Lightning drew 4.862 million viewers.

In 1994, the network pulled in its largest National Hockey League audience for its telecast of the seventh game of the final between the Vancouver Canucks and the New York Rangers. It was watched by 4.957 million viewers.

Still, the CBC set several records for its telecasts of this year's playoffs. The final between the Flames and the Lightning had an average audience of 3.735 million a game, the network's highest for the final and at least the highest since the network started using its current system of audience measurement in 1989.

The audience figures are measured over an entire telecast. However, for what is known as game-only audiences, those measured from the drop of the puck to the end of the game, Game 7 ranks as the CBC's largest NHL audience ever -- 5.56 million compared with 5.404 for Game 7 in 1994.

For the entire 2004 playoffs, the CBC averaged 2.154 million viewers for each telecast. That's also a record and 35 per cent higher than last year's overall audience figure.

Now, let's look at the United States. ABC's telecast of Game 7 was its last and its executives are probably saying, thank goodness.

ABC earned a national rating of 4.2 (about 4.2 million U.S. households) for Game 7. Although that was a decrease of 9 per cent from last year's rating for Game 7 between New Jersey and Anaheim, it was an improvement over the audiences for the earlier games. Still, it's low.

In 2000, ABC's first year of broadcasting NHL games, the network's combined rating for telecasts of the Stanley Cup final was a 3.7 (about 3.7 million U.S. households). Last year, it was down to a 2.9. This year, it slumped to a 2.6.

Two weeks ago, a humbled NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced a revenue-sharing agreement with NBC that will produce no rights revenue for the league nor any money up front. That's a big fall from 1999 when the league cashed in on a five-year rights deal with ESPN and ABC worth $600-million (all figures U.S.).

What went wrong?

For starters, the Disney Co.-owned ESPN and ABC grossly overpaid for the games in 1999. Michael Eisner, the chief executive officer for Disney and a hockey fan, agreed to a rights contract worth almost four times more than the NHL's previous deal with Fox Television and ESPN.

Buoyed by the contract, the NHL billed itself as a member of the big four club of pro sports, along with the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.

To bolster its TV audiences and cash in on expansion fees, the NHL continued to add new franchises. But the strategy failed. In the new non-traditional markets, game attendance showed some growth, but television viewers didn't tune in.

"The theory was that the more markets you had in the United States, the better the ratings would be," a source said. "What you really ended up with were new hockey markets that were weak and consisting of 20,000 people who are hard-core fans. The rest didn't care."

Some observers argue that expansion did more than just produce mediocre markets. It also hurt hockey in some of the NHL's established cities, such as Boston and Chicago.

"What you ended up with was a bunch of lousy teams where, aside from the people in the stands, nobody really cared," an observer said. "Expansion made the whole product weak and watered down.

"Sure, you can blame [Blackhawks owner]Bill Wirtz for the problems in Chicago, but the Blackhawks and other traditional clubs would be stronger if there weren't as many teams."

Certainly, the NHL's playoff ratings would be better if teams in traditional cities advanced to the final instead of new clubs such as Florida, Anaheim, Carolina and Tampa Bay.

ABC took a beating this year not just because a Canadian team played for the Cup, denying the network a U.S. market, but also because of Tampa Bay's appearance.

"When you let in a bunch of non-traditional hockey markets, one of them is going to pop through every year and go deep into the playoffs," a source said. "What that does is kill the TV market."

There are a multitude of additional reasons for hockey's failure on U.S. television.

One is the entertainment factor. Superstars such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier have faded or retired over the past five years.

They haven't been replaced, perhaps because of the way hockey has been played. Unlike the NBA, which became a success in the 1980s by allowing its stars to excel on the court, the NHL has allowed obstruction and defensive tactics to shut down its best offensive players.

There is also the false expectation factor. Bettman has consistently ranked the NHL on a par with the NFL, the NBA and baseball.

"For Bettman to say hockey is one of the big four leagues, well, that's a joke," a TV executive said. "The bottom line is hockey is smaller than golf, smaller than NASCAR. It's smaller than figure skating in the United States.

"It is a top-10 sport. It is in there battling it out with tennis, Arena League Football, soccer and the rest of it. But that's it."

Not that hockey's TV woes are Bettman's fault alone.

With the exception of NASCAR, television ratings for all U.S. sports telecasts, even the NFL on ABC's Monday Night Football, have dropped. There are so many options today -- ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports Net, plus main networks, not to mention niche services, such as ESPN Classic and Fox Sports World.

What's more, hockey always has been a tough sell in the United States. Among the first six expansion teams of 1967, only the Philadelphia Flyers have been a clear-cut success. The Oakland Seals and the Minnesota North Stars left town. The Los Angeles Kings, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the St. Louis Blues have struggled. The league also failed to capitalize on Gretzky's star power in the 1980s.

Moreover, some TV executives believe U.S. television has done a poor job of making hockey accessible to new viewers. Announcers such as Gary Thorne and Mike Emrick use too much hockey terminology and jargon. They speak to the converted.

The NBC deal may turn around the fortunes of the league. Working as an equal partner with a network, the NHL will be motivated to enhance the telecasts and show more interest in improving the on-ice product.

But Bettman and the owners need to accept hockey for what it is.

"The worst thing Gary ever did was convince the owners that they're much bigger than they're ever going to be," a source said.

"Can the NHL run a league that's popular in its 30 cities? Maybe. Can it run a league in which all the owners make money? Depending on the next CBA [collective bargaining agreement] maybe. Can they still get themselves shown on national TV. Yes, but mostly on cable.

"But there's no pot of gold waiting from a major network."

**

CBC's top 10 games

The top 10 audiences for NHL telecasts on the CBC:

1. Vancouver Canucks-New York Rangers, Game 7, 1994 final, 4.957 million.

2. Calgary Flames-Tampa Bay Lightning, Game 7, 2004 final, 4.862 million.

3. Lightning-Flames, Game 6, 2004 final, 4.673 million.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs-Los Angeles Kings, Game 7, 1993 third round, 4.269 million.

5. Maple Leafs-Ottawa Senators, Game 7, 2002 second round, 3.93 million.

6. Maple Leafs-Senators, Game 6, 2004 first round, 3.9 million.

7. Maple Leafs-Carolina Hurricanes, Game 6, 2002 third round, 3.816 million.

8. Senators-Maple Leafs, Game 7, 2004 first round, 3.679 million.

9. Kings-Montreal Canadiens, Game 5, 1993 final, 3.614 million.

10. Kings-Maple Leafs, Game 5, 1993 third round, 3.545 million.

William Houston