Greg Millen will join regulars Bob Cole and Harry Neale in the broadcast booth for Hockey Night in Canada coverage of the Stanley Cup final. This will be the first time Hockey Night has used a three-man booth in the final in years, and the objective is clear: to bring some energy and enthusiasm to the analysis.
Millen's work, mostly with Jim Hughson, has been solid, but Neale kept a low profile in the Ottawa Senators-Buffalo Sabres National Hockey League Eastern Conference final. Cole did most of the talking and Neale proved to be a good listener.
The final will begin on Monday and all games will start at 8 p.m. EDT.
In negotiating the schedule, the CBC and NBC, for the first time, shared the same objective. The CBC wanted to keep its Saturday night time slot. NBC preferred to avoid airing hockey on Friday and Sunday nights, when Law & Order and Dateline NBC, respectively, would earn higher ratings.
That's why Saturday will be the night for hockey on the first weekend of the final, June 2, and the second weekend, June 9, if a sixth game is necessary.
The CBC will be hoping the Senators, after underperforming as an audience producer in the first three rounds of the playoffs, make a breakthrough.
The CBC averaged 1.682 million viewers for the five-game Senators-Sabres series. That was down 15 per cent from the average for the 2006 Western Conference final, which also featured a Canadian team, the Edmonton Oilers, against the Anaheim Ducks, and 10 per cent below the average for the 2004 Western final between the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks.
Ottawa-Buffalo's fifth game last Saturday was played in the afternoon, which is a weak time slot (the CBC drew 1.4 million viewers). But the Oilers last year also were handicapped by poor starting times. Three games started at 9 p.m. EDT, which is late in the East. In 2004, the Flames played two afternoon games and had three 10 p.m. starts.
The Senators have yet to produce an audience of two million. That was something the Oilers and Flames achieved several times in their conference finals.
NBC's decision to pull the plug on last Saturday's overtime period of the Ottawa-Buffalo game will not be repeated, a network spokesman said this week. NBC stopped its coverage at the end of regulation time to go to its Preakness Stakes telecast at 5 p.m. EDT.
"The only reason we left overtime coverage on Saturday was because of contractual obligations with the Preakness that preceded our NHL deal," Brian Walker of NBC Universal said.
Overtime was transferred to the U.S. cable channel Versus, but NBC viewers were left in the dark.
"I was watching Saturday afternoon and actually yelled at the TV," a hockey fan in New York wrote in an e-mail.
Television producer Ralph Mellanby, formerly the head of Hockey Night and a long-time Olympic broadcaster, called NBC's move "a travesty."
"In terms of credibility, the NHL is now a laughingstock," he said.
NBC did virtually nothing to keep viewers apprised of what was happening in overtime. The Preakness didn't run until well past 6 p.m. EDT, and Ottawa's winning goal was scored at about 5:20 p.m.
Two broadcasters said the NHL would have easily avoided the problem by starting the game at 1 p.m. instead of 2 p.m. The earlier start would have given NBC time to air the overtime period.
The Preakness telecast earned a 5.4 overnight rating (percentage of households tuned in), almost five times the 1.2 for Saturday's hockey telecast. (NBC's telecast of the Sunday overtime game between the Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings earned a 1.6 overnight.)
Although NBC has some key late-night programming, NBC's telecasts of the Cup final will take priority, Walker said.
Cherry's thumbs up
Last October, Don Cherry gave us his prediction for the Stanley Cup final four. He was wrong on only one, the New York Rangers. The Hockey Night commentator declines to pick the Cup winner because, he says, "The other guys take it personally. I remember one guy coming up and saying, 'I thought we were friends of yours?' So it's not worth it to me."
Cherry says the Senators look stronger than the Ducks. "Anaheim I don't think has played a good 60 minutes, at least not against Detroit," he said. "Ottawa, on the other hand, is just smoking."