The most important skirmish of the Stanley Cup playoffs may be one taking place off the ice.
One week into the so-called second season, the National Hockey League is scrambling to put an end to violent attacks on star players as some fans protest what they see as a nasty turn in the game.
Even some sponsors are quietly expressing concern to the league about the possibility of their own image being tarnished. But even as many Canadians wring their hands over the playoffs' pugilistic turn, sponsors are holding their tongues in public and watching the ratings.
In the United States, TV ratings for hockey are up 50 per cent for the NBC group of channels over this time last year. Viewership is strong in Canada, with some in the broadcasting industry suggesting the very controversy over the spike in cheap-shots and thuggery may be pushing the ratings higher.
On Tuesday, only hours after Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa was carried off the ice on a stretcher following an ugly blindside hit, the NHL's chief operating officer admitted the league is hearing from its business partners over the rash of suspensions and fines arising out of the on-ice antics, and the ensuing media coverage.
"They're paying us a lot of money to associate with our brand," said John Collins, who came to the NHL from the NFL. "So when our brand is under attack in the press on issues as serious as player safety, they want to know that the league is on top of it, and has a plan for dealing with it and hear the league articulate it."
Last spring, when Sidney Crosby was still trying to recuperate from a persistent concussion and the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty was stretchered off the ice after being knocked against a bare stanchion, companies such as Air Canada and Via Rail were outspoken in demanding change in the NHL.
Asked for a response to the fact that its logo was featured prominently on the boards behind Mr. Hossa as he lay prone on the ice Tuesday night, a spokeswoman for Discover credit card said: "Discover expects that the NHL will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure that its players are safe."
VISA Canada, a major NHL sponsor, similarly remarked: "We do not get involved in or comment on the administration of sports, governing bodies or event organizers."
Marketers may be speaking more forcefully to the league in private. But many also recognize that, in an intensely competitive media environment where it is increasingly difficult to grab the attention of young and middle-aged men, playoff hockey provides some of the dwindling opportunities of so-called appointment television.
"It's an opportunity to reach Canadians in most significant markets because there's such a passion for the game," said one media consultant. "In a fragmented world, people are sharing experiences."
At least one unlikely marketer is shrugging off the violence. Whirlpool Canada, which owns the Maytag appliance brand, is teaming up with CBC for a promotion during the playoffs that runs both online and on TV. Citing research showing 76 per cent of its 25-54 female demographic watches CBC hockey, Maytag's brand manager said it made sense to buy into the promotion, especially after a similar one during last year's playoffs resulted in a sales bump for the brand.
As for the violence, "I think that's par for the course in terms of the game," said Valerie Malone.
Besides, despite increased attention in recent years on brands' desire to associate themselves with causes that contribute to a better society, companies also realize a segment of their target market has no interest in such things.
They also understand that, even as the NHL tries to control violence, blood-sports have found acceptance as a form of entertainment in other avenues. Plenty of mainstream marketers, for example, have thrown money at mixed martial arts stars such as Canada's George St. Pierre, who fight people for a living.
This year, hockey insiders have blamed the focus on injuries as an invention of the media, with the CBC's star commentator Don Cherry suggesting the only people who were concerned about the physical nature of the playoffs were the journalists who cover the league.
The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager took a similar tack. Brian Burke said violators have been punished for a small number of missteps, and that it's "unfortunate that non-hockey media is focusing on that. But what I see is great hockey. It's awesome."
Viewers seem to agree. Ratings have been strong at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., through the first round, with the Ottawa Senators-New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks-Los Angeles Kings series drawing an average approaching 2 million viewers a game.
There's always a ratings bump in the playoffs, particularly when there are Canadian teams involved, but CBC's executive director of sports properties says the controversy has sparked interest in the game among those who may not usually follow that closely.
"When you get news stories focused on [the playoffs] it helps everything and all boats rise," Jeffrey Orridge said. "There are people who feel that it is exciting hockey, that it is another level of intensity. There are others who thought it has been gratuitous in terms of the level of aggression. If you ask 100 people, you may get 100 different perspectives."
TSN, which is broadcasting games featuring American teams, has seen its viewership numbers increase by 56 per cent over last year, largely because of the highly aggressive series between Pennsylvania's intra-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The series has featured both sloppy goaltending and frequent brawling, including an unlikely fight between Crosby and Flyers star Claude Giroux. "We did anticipate some great hockey and some fireworks, but maybe not to the extent we've seen," said TSN president Stewart Johnston. "That series has really been lightning in a bottle."
Peter Sisam, a sports consultant at IMG Canada, said viewers are tuning in to see the Flyers and Penguins because of the rising levels of animosity, and that's something advertisers can get behind.
"People will be calling every day to get in on that," he said. "The value would be terrific; the playoffs are a very valuable franchise."
With a report by Bruce Dowbiggin
Suspensions in the 2012 playoffs entering Wednesday night's games (25 games)
Suspensions in the 2011 playoffs (89 games)
Suspensions in the 2010 playoffs (89 games)
Average number of penalty minutes per game in the 2012 playoffs entering Wednesday night's games
Average number of penalty minutes per game in the 2011 playoffs
Number of games with more than 60 penalty minutes in the 2012 playoffs entering Wednesday night's games
Number of games with more than 60 penalty minutes in the 2011 playoffs
BY THE NUMBERS
Rise in viewers from NBC's Pittsburgh-Philadelphia game on Sunday compared with a Washington-N.Y. Rangers game last year.
Increase in viewers from NBC's Washington-Boston game on Saturday compared with a Phoenix-Detroit game last year.
Viewers watching Tuesday's Phoenix-Chicago game on TSN.
Viewers watching Tuesday's Florida-New Jersey game on TSN.
Viewers watching Tuesday's Nashville-Detroit game on CBC.
Sources: CBC, TSN and Nielsen