Skip to main content

The CBC is furious over the National Hockey League's decision to schedule Saturday's Pittsburgh Penguins-Ottawa Senators match in the afternoon instead of prime time.

The Canadian network wanted the game in the evening timeslot to maximize viewership for the traditional Hockey Night in Canada Saturday night show.

But the league bowed to NBC, which limits telecasts to the afternoon and wants the game because of the marquee potential of Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.

NBC will air one additional afternoon game on Saturday -- the second game of the New York Rangers-Atlanta Thrashers series.

Particularly galling to the CBC is that it is paying the league a rights fee of $65-million a year while NBC pays nothing in a profit-sharing agreement with the NHL. What's more, the CBC recently signed a contract extension with the NHL in which it will pay $600-million over six years, starting in 2008-09.

"Generally, the network that writes the biggest cheque gets to make the call," a source said. "When ABC was paying the league $100-million [U.S.]a year, and CBC was paying $60-million, ABC got priority."

"If I'm the CBC, I'm saying, 'My God, I just agreed to cut you a cheque for more than half a billion dollars and I still don't get priority over somebody who isn't paying five cents? It's not right.' "

That sounds close to the tone of the conversation on Sunday night when Scott Moore, the head of CBC Sports, put in a call to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the hopes of changing the schedule.

"I made my feelings known in very strong terms that I felt that game [Penguins-Senators]should be in prime time," Mr. Moore said. "He feels that he's doing the right thing for the game by exposing Sidney to the U.S. audience. I strongly disagree. I couldn't change his mind, and we're very disappointed about that."

Not only did the NHL refuse to give the CBC the Pittsburgh-Ottawa Saturday game in prime time, but the first-round schedule denies the network the assurance of any Saturday night telecasts involving a Canadian team.

There could be one -- Vancouver Canucks-Dallas Stars on April 21 -- but only if that series goes six games.

Without Pens-Sens in prime time on Saturday, the CBC will air Tampa Bay Lightning-New Jersey Devils, a weak matchup unlikely to produce an audience larger than TSN's New York Islanders-Buffalo Sabres telecast, which will air at the same time.

The CBC will lose at least 300,000 viewers, and probably more, because of the league's decision to designate Pittsburgh-Ottawa for Saturday afternoon.

Mr. Moore refused to discuss the particulars of his exchange with Mr. Bettman.

"If I tell you anything more, it would be less than politically correct," Mr. Moore said. "I feel very strongly about it. He felt very strongly about it. We had a very frank discussion about it."

The league's argument is that NBC needs to be given priority to help make hockey a growth TV sport in the United States. However, there is no evidence that the NHL, with or without Mr. Crosby, is growing on NBC. Regular-season audiences were down from last season.

Jamey Horan, the NHL's vice-president of public relations, said the league attempts to address the playoff needs of all broadcasters.

"Although there are always a multitude of competing interests in formulating a playoff schedule, such as building availability, television, and travel, we always make every effort to accommodate and maximize value for our broadcast partners," he wrote in an e-mail. "This year was no different."

The league should pay more attention to the needs of hockey viewers in Canada, says Nick Kypreos, who works for Rogers Sportsnet.

"The more you tamper with the tradition of watching Canadian hockey on Saturday nights, the more you're going to turn audiences away," he said.