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The Globe and Mail

Global initiative at the club level in NHL's plans

The TV cameras caught the sign at the Heritage Classic. "Hockey Is Canada's Game". Anyone who knows the state of play in the hockey world knows the sign is redundant. Canada rules. But for some insecure fans it needs repeating. So on this frozen Sunday, CBC made sure we knew Canada was still King of Hockey.

There was also some tetchy Canadian chauvinism in the media reaction to the wildly popular outdoor game between Montreal and Calgary. While fans ate up the spectacle, domestic press harumphed over poor ice quality, the Flames' retro jerseys, the life expectancy of the promotion, lack of other venues in Canada and U.S. TV imperatives. TV ratings gave them a big "Shut Up, Lucy" with 2.087 million in English and another 869,000 in French on RDS. The Versus broadcast averaged 608,000 viewers (peaking at over 700,000 viewers between 7:00-7:15 p.m. ET) making the fourth most-watched regular-season game in the network's history. The viewership also marks a 95 per cent increase from the 2010/11 NHL regular-season average on Versus.

For those who insist on being culturally threatened there was cause for distress, however. The league's COO John Collins made it clear in an interview that if he gets his way there could be up to a half dozen "event" contests a season. Plus, he emphasized that a global initiative is in the league's plans.

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"We're definitely talking about how the best [club] teams from the European leagues play the best in North America, like in the soccer model," Collins told Usual Suspects. "A World Cup where the best national teams have a chance to compete. It's all part of how we'll drive the business across all our [media] platforms. With a third of our players coming from [Europe] it's a great opportunity."

To execute its grand media strategies, the NHL is looking to integrate its rights packages this year in both the U.S. and Europe (expect an announcement by this spring on both). This will allow use of highlights across all platforms. Examples of new business models helped by this integration would be a potential NHL Red Zone Channel, modeled after the NFL's dedicated channel that shows nothing but scoring and highlights live from multiple games that night.

Another example, says Collins, would be digital packages that would allow Finnish hockey fans to access a package featuring all the highlights of Finnish NHL players from the night before. Or OHL fans to follow their favourite products. "The NFL is so advanced that it can slice off tiny slivers of its rights package for great sums of money. We're not there yet. But integrating our rights holders gives us a chance to package our product in new and exciting ways for fans.

"It's a big year for us. The new media contracts gives us a new way of driving business, of driving new events, new properties. From a business standpoint, the sooner the better for the rights announcements."

COLD CASE FILES: Major props to the technical staffs at CBC, RDS and Versus who braved the Scott-of-the-Antarctic cold in Calgary this weekend to bring the HD and 3D images of the Heritage game. The opening montage of teams arriving, anthems, fly past and puck drop was as compelling as it was cryogenic. On a day better suited to the Iditarod, they brought magnificent pictures to hockey fans. In particular, the 3D images were stunning.

And don't forget the techs at Sportsnet who only had 15 hours to set up for Monday's Regina/ Calgary Western Hockey league game - even as the other networks were breaking down their gear. Major camera and audio switches had to be made. There were anxious moments to get the 3 P.M. ET WHL game up and running without a hitch. The on-ice cam shots and the wireless mikes used exclusively in the WHL cast produced unique enhancements to the pictures.

MEDIA SPIN: Toronto media rise each day with a silent prayer of thanks for having Brian Burke delivered into their midst. As the NHL heads to the February 28 trade deadline, the Maple Leafs president/ GM delivers quotes the way Dion Phaneuf delivers slap shots: high, wild and unpredictable. In the run-up to the trade deadline Burke has been a one-man content provider, promising trades, making trades, denying trades in gigabyte helpings.

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But is Burke's agitated media style effective in the manic Toronto hockey market? In Anaheim, where hockey is the equivalent of crickets chirping, Burke's bluster was a necessary noise to stir up interest in the Ducks. In Toronto, crickets chirping at the ACC warrants 24-point type. In that climate, Burke's carny act only inflames the nerve endings of an already agitated fan base. He must keep topping himself, forever churning his roster.

Hence the three-year Tomas Kaberle departure watch in which the modest defenceman ascended to Carmelo Anthony stratosphere as Burke sought to trade him. The protracted Favre-ian melodrama left the city and its media exhausted by the time Kaberle was eventually dismissed to Boston last week.

The question: Does Burke's over-wrought media style - tie askew, eyes burning with caffeined intensity - help or does it only beget more agitation? Back in Burke's former haunt of Vancouver - where passions run just as high for the Stanley Cup deficient Canucks - current president/ GM Mike Gillis has taken a different tack. With his team in first place overall, Gillis' approach to media is to smother the frenetic scribes and talking heads with a baleful shrug.

Gillis never gives up-to-the-minute Burkeian bullet points on the progress of trades or free agents. Boring might best describe him as he sits, like Ozymandias, in the GM's box at Rogers Place, never betraying emotion for TV cameras. He has resolved that, for a team with a legitimate shot at its first Cup ever, dampening expectations is perhaps the best way to avoid a Charlie Sheen in the populace.

When anxiety comes, Burke perpetually operates at C above high C; Gillis is still down in the baritone notes with room to rise. It's early in the opera, but we'll see which man conducts the score best.

TEED UP: Golf fans will notice that NBC's coverage of this week's WGC Accenture Match Play Championship has been taken over by The Golf Channel. All graphics, scoreboards and fonts reflect The Golf Channel, which is now part of the united NBC/ Comcast giant. The new operation is called The Golf Channel On NBC. It's a contrast to other sports, where NBC has taken over Versus and other operations. But The Golf Channel is thought to have a greater cachet, and so viewers will get the logos of both networks in their coverage. Besides, they'll get Johnny Miller, the best analyst in the business.

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O SAY CAN YOU HEAR: Finally, we thought our TV was broken Sunday as we watched the NBA All Star contest. Josh Groban sang the Star Spangled Banner- as written! At least we think that's the Francis Scott Key's version. It's been a while since anyone thought to just sing the U.S. anthem instead of torture it. We're grateful to Marvin Gaye for much, but launching the era of anthem improvisation is not one of them.

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