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Canada fans hang their heads as Canada plays against Team USA during third period semi-final IIHF World Junior Championships hockey action in Ufa, Russia on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Either Canada has great hockey fans or people in this country aren't sleeping properly. Despite starting times in the middle of the night, TSN still saw respectable ratings from the round robin of the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia. Canada's game with Russia on New Year's Eve attracted 1.6 million for its 9 a.m. Eastern start (6 a.m. Pacific). A total of 2.5 million saw the game either live or in replay later.

For the Sunday game against the United States, which started at 4:30 a.m. EST, 561,000 watched live on TSN. A further 901,000 caught the encore at noon Eastern. Even the Boxing Day opener against Germany garnered 372,000 for a 4:30 a.m. EST start. Hello, Five-Hour Energy!

Healthy numbers, yes. But a far cry from the 2011 world juniors final in Buffalo between Canada and Russia. Canada lost to Russia 5-3, but TSN had an audience of 6.2 million viewers. RDS scored its second-highest audience for a world junior match with 652,000 viewers, despite Canada surrendering five goals in the third period to lose.

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In the 2012 tournament in Alberta, several round-robin games drew live audiences between 2.2 million and almost three million.

The semi-final between Canada and Russia (won 6-5 by Russia) drew a robust 2.9 million. As a result, TSN won the ratings battle in Canada every night the whole week.

Brand loyalty

So do TSN's modest numbers this year spell a weakening of the world juniors brand or are they simply a reflection of the time-zone crunch?

"Think it's pure time zone," says Brian Cooper, president and CEO of S&E Sponsorship Group, which handles many Hockey Canada sponsors.

"I'm a big hockey fan, but I'm not getting up at 4:30 to watch. The numbers are very respectable. When you average them over five years it is still a bargain."

While ratings are down and the tournament goes to Sweden next year, Cooper says that Hockey Canada's control of signage even in foreign countries is a plus for Canadian sponsors.

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"For sponsors, you buy the branding through replays and highlight packs on TV, because Hockey Canada controls them. That gives you a chance to block out your competitor and get branding even at reduced viewership."

Cooper also says the gold-medal drought is not a problem to sponsors.

"There's a feeling Canada should win all the time. That used to happen. I thought that hurt the brand more than going a few years without winning."

Cherry picking

TV viewers have been seeing commercials for the latest iteration of Don Cherry's video dedicated to the manly arts in hockey. Let's just say Roger Ebert ain't reviewing this one either. That led some to ask us how CBC can countenance paying Cherry for nothing during the lockout or giving him free video for his commercial venture with Rock 'Em Sock 'Em. To clarify: Cherry is a HNIC contractor, not a CBC staffer. So he, like Glenn Healy and others, is not being paid his usual salary until the NHL games resume. He's free to do limited outside work so long as it doesn't conflict with his HNIC role. As for the NHL action featured on Cherry's video, his company pays the league for the rights. Which tells you how profitable the videos have been for him.

Plucking the peacock

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We've documented how corporate Canada and United States have soured on the NHL during its self-indulgent labour fight. Now, more evidence why NBC is simmering over the extended battle for a contract. NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) was counting on NHL games as their principal live content, delivering the network from its former outdoor life and fishing focus.

But that hasn't happened. Despite importing the popular Dan Patrick radio program and Bob Costas's interview show, NBCSN ratings are still just friends-and-family. Only a partial NFL game and a boxing card drew more than 200,000 viewers in December. Advertisers looking for a sports network are instead seeing the same-old from NBCSN. Hunting and fishing shows delivered 14 of the top 20 highest-rated time slots in December. In short, the lack of NHL games has been a disaster at a time when virtually all sports programing is raking in big money. Leading industry insiders to wonder just how Gary Bettman survives his phyrric victory over his players.

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