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Toronto Maple Leafs' Wayne Simmonds (24), Morgan Rielly (44) and Auston Matthews (34) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during third period NHL action in Edmonton on Jan. 28, 2021.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Jay Rousseau had been looking forward to the new NHL season. He’s a lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan, but life had got busy over the past few years, he’d cut his cable and hadn’t caught many games. But now that he’s spending a lot more time at home (thanks, COVID!), he’d decided to splash out on the streaming package known as NHL Live, which for $180 plus tax, gives hockey fans across the country access to more than a thousand games in a typical season.

Then came the blackouts.

The Habs’ season opener, on Jan. 13 against the Leafs, came through just fine. So did the second game, on Jan. 16. But when Rousseau tried to watch the next three – the first, against the Oilers in Edmonton, followed by a pair against the Canucks in Vancouver – his iPhone displayed the following message: “Your selection is not currently available in NHL Live due to local or national blackout restrictions.”

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He didn’t understand. The fine print on NHL Live said it offered “national and out-of-market” games,” as well as the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Habs were playing in Edmonton and Vancouver, and he was at home, in the east end of Ottawa: Surely, he figured, that meant those games were out-of-market?

He figured wrong. In fact, Rousseau had stumbled upon a perennial source of frustration for Canadians: In a country in which watching hockey on TV is considered something close to a birthright, why do some fans have such difficulty figuring out how to catch their favourite teams?

NHL LIVE blackout territories

Fans who reside in a team’s home market can only access their games through regional broadcasters.

Vancouver Canucks

Toronto Maple Leafs

Calgary Flames,

Edmonton Oilers

Ottawa Senators,

Montreal Canadiens

Winnipeg Jets

Yukon

Nunavut

NWT

B.C.

N.L.

Alta.

Que

Sask.

Man.

PEI

Ont.

N.B.

N.S.

Pembroke

Belleville

THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: NHL LIVE

NHL LIVE blackout territories

Fans who reside in a team’s home market can only access their games through regional broadcasters.

Vancouver Canucks

Toronto Maple Leafs

Calgary Flames,

Edmonton Oilers

Ottawa Senators,

Montreal Canadiens

Winnipeg Jets

Yukon

Nunavut

NWT

B.C.

N.L.

Alta.

Que

Sask.

Man.

PEI

Ont.

N.B.

N.S.

Pembroke

THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: NHL LIVE

Belleville

NHL LIVE blackout territories

Fans who reside in a team’s home market can only access their games through regional broadcasters.

Vancouver Canucks

Calgary Flames,

Edmonton Oilers

Winnipeg Jets

Toronto Maple Leafs

Ottawa Senators,

Montreal Canadiens

Yukon

Nunavut

NWT

B.C.

N.L.

Alta.

Que

Sask.

Man.

PEI

Ont.

N.B.

N.S.

Pembroke

THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: NHL LIVE

Belleville

“It’s just too confusing,” Rousseau said to me last week. He had sent a note to my editor complaining about being blocked from games without an explanation, so I called him up to get some details about his particular situation.

Then I jumped down a rabbit hole filled with hockey blackout trivia and patchwork maps of this country that would confound my Grade 9 Geography teacher.

When hockey first arrived on Canadian televisions in the 1950s, team owners were so concerned about the effect on ticket sales, games weren’t permitted to begin airing until the second period.

That’s why the English Premier League usually blacks out live coverage of its Saturday 3 p.m. soccer matches in Britain, in hopes that fans of lesser-ranked teams will go to games rather than staying home and watching better teams on TV. But the EPL has lifted the blackout during COVID-19, because fans can’t attend in person.

Many fans still believe that’s the rationale for hockey blackouts. Last week, Adam Reid, a Senators fan who lives in Newfoundland, tweeted: “How does the @NHL justify blacking out games IF WE LITERALLY CANNOT GO TO GAMES [followed by five ‘disapproval’ emojis]”. The tweet registered more than 2,000 likes.

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But those fans are working from an outdated playbook. Decades ago, NHL owners realized the potential for higher TV revenue outweighed the risk of cannibalizing their ticket sales, so they began selling what are known as regional broadcasting rights to local channels, such as CHCH in Hamilton, which aired Maple Leafs games in the late 1970s and ’80s, and BCTV, which aired Canucks games.

Then the deeper-pocketed cable sports channels came along and scooped up those regional rights. (CBC retained its Hockey Night in Canada franchise, airing games across the country on Saturday nights, until Rogers Communications bought those, too, with its famous $5.2-billion deal for 12 years’ worth of national games.)

Here’s how the regional markets break down: TSN has the rights to Montreal’s, Ottawa’s and Winnipeg’s games; Sportsnet has Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver; and the two broadcasters divide the regional rights to Toronto’s games. If you live in a team’s home market, you need to subscribe to their regional broadcaster in order to watch games that aren’t aired nationally – regardless of where those games are played.

That’s why Rousseau couldn’t watch the Canadiens play the Oilers or the Canucks, even when the games were in Edmonton or Vancouver: The term ‘in-market’ refers to where the viewer lives, not where the games are played. Unluckily for him, the Canadiens “home market” comprises the five easternmost provinces plus a small triangle of Ontario east of Belleville that includes Ottawa.

He’d thought a subscription to NHL Live was his ticket around those restrictions. Sure, he knew blackouts were a possibility, but he’d consulted a tool on the NHL Live website, “What Can I Watch?”, which allows users to enter their postal code to find out which games they won’t be able to see. But when he bought the service, before the season began, none of the Canadiens games were marked as being blacked out.

He’d also poked around the TSN Direct site, that cable channel’s streaming service, but hadn’t turned up much information about Canadiens games there.

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“I’ve been doing streaming forever, so I’m used to looking up to see what I get, and for what value,” Rousseau said. “And you cannot determine the value of streaming for NHL games, no matter which provider it is. It’s not possible to figure out what you’re going to get and what you’re not going to get.”

He told me he was considering using a VPN, which would change his computer’s IP address and make it look to NHL Live as though he were outside the Canadiens’ home market.

He’d also thought about turning to pirate sites. “You can stream anything free, and the quality is getting better and better. If [NHL Live] isn’t user-friendly, what’s the point?” Still, he said, he doesn’t want to cheat. “I’d rather pay for the service.”

I contacted Rogers Sports & Media, which sells NHL Live in Canada; a spokesperson informed me the “What Can I Watch?” tool had not yet been updated with information for the current season. Then, last Monday, it finally went live with valid info, six games into the season. I also contacted a spokesperson for Bell Media, who sent me a media release outlining which Habs games will air on TSN this season.

Then, recalling my long-ago days as a customer service rep, I called up Rousseau and gently broke the news to him that, if he wanted to see the bulk of the Montreal games, he’d need to subscribe to TSN Direct. Even so, I explained, that would get him only 34 of the Habs’ 56 regular season games this season: The other 22 will air nationally, on Sportsnet or CBC.

“I’m willing to pay a little more,” for one service or the other, he said, “but give me all the games!”

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That would seem to make sense. But that’s not the way we do things here.

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