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When it is announced in a few weeks, it will be the largest and arguably the most important regional sports rights deal negotiated in Canadian television.

Sources have confirmed that Rogers Sportsnet is set to pay the Toronto Maple Leafs $700,000 a game in an eight-year rights deal that will make Sportsnet the leading carrier of regional telecasts through 2014-15.

The $700,000 figure is a 56-per-cent increase from the $450,000 a game that TSN and Sportsnet have been paying the Leafs for the telecasts.

No sports club in Canada gets anything close to that amount for TV rights, although the Leafs do assume the production costs. Sportsnet pays the Vancouver Canucks, in Canada's second largest English-language market, less than $300,000 a game.

The fee charged by the Montreal Canadiens to Réseau des Sports is about $250,000 a game, and the French-language channel is allowed to take those telecasts nationwide.

Sportsnet, which will air between 20 and 30 games a season, is paying a high price because the Leafs are the most valuable sports property in the country. They play in Canada's largest market, have a national following and produce the largest viewership.

But Sportsnet paid a record amount for another reason. It has lost important programming over the past year and is in particularly bad straits in Ontario, where the regional feed desperately needs major-league content from November to April.

Sportsnet Ontario was denied Toronto Raptors regional telecasts a year ago because the Raptors wanted the games airing countrywide. Sportsnet also lost English Premier League rights to The Score, starting in 2007-08.

A question being asked is: Why didn't Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the Leafs, do the deal with TSN? After all, CTVglobemedia, which owns TSN and The Globe and Mail, has a 15-per-cent stake in MLSE.

The answer is tied to MLSE's needing a more favourable cable tier for its digital channel Leafs TV, which will air more than 20 Leafs regular-season games next season.

Moving Leafs TV to a better spot on the dial meant dealing with Rogers Communications, which, in addition to Sportsnet, owns Rogers Cable, the dominant cable company in the Toronto market.

Rogers Cable agreed to move Leafs TV to a basic digital tier from a premium tier, increasing its distribution to one million households (and growing) from 500,000.

In return, MLSE gave Sportsnet first shot at Leafs regional rights.

TSN has been the principal Leafs regional telecaster for years. In the 2006-07 season, TSN owned rights to 40 Leafs games, but sold off 15 to Sportsnet.

In the new deal, TSN's regional schedule will be much smaller, perhaps only 10 games. It's been speculated that TSN could be out entirely as a regional carrier.

But TSN's main focus is national distribution. And the network will continue to air a schedule of Leafs games nationally in a National Hockey League agreement.

For those reading the tea leaves at MLSE, the Rogers-Leafs agreement may portend a more important alliance. Ted Rogers, the founder and chief executive of Rogers Communications, is friendly with MLSE chairman and minority owner (14 per cent) Larry Tanenbaum.

For years, the Rogers company has sought a piece of the action at MLSE. In 2006, Rogers and MLSE announced a "strategic partnership" that included Rogers supplying MLSE with an array of telecom services. If the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, which owns about 59 per cent of MLSE, sells, look for Rogers and Tanenbaum teaming up to grab control of the company.

Cole, Neale reunited

The best play-by-play voice on Hockey Night In Canada in the playoffs has been Jim Hughson. Game analyst Greg Millen also has been effective.

Yet, they have been relegated to the B series of the third round, the Anaheim Ducks-Detroit Red Wings Western Conference final. Hughson and Millen will work a maximum of three games (the remainder will be on TSN), while Bob Cole and Harry Neale will call the Ottawa Senators-Buffalo Sabres series.

Given that Cole and Neale are scheduled to do the Stanley Cup final, Hockey Night should have given them the less demanding Western series, which would have included a few days off, and rewarded Hughson and Millen with the Eastern final. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call TSN's Western Conference telecasts.

TSN drew 727,000 for the sixth game of the Detroit-San Jose Sharks series on Monday. The network averaged 575,000 viewers in the second round, up 24 per cent from last year.

whouston@globeandmail.com