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Apocalypse not

Lousy postseason TV ratings are an NHL way of life

Posted: Tuesday May 23, 2006 2:21PM; Updated: Tuesday May 23, 2006 5:34PM
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Some folks call it a nightmare scenario: The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim battling the Carolina Hurricanes for Lord Stanley's mug.
Some folks call it a nightmare scenario: The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim battling the Carolina Hurricanes for Lord Stanley's mug.
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There has been much chatter in sporting circles about the NHL's impending Stanley Cup finals Armageddon. The basic argument is that none of the four teams left in the tournament can draw flies, let alone eyeballs, to TV screens across the United States, where the majority of franchises dwell; thus The New NHL is destined to shake hands with famine, plague, boils, locusts and fiery destruction.

"The NHL must have a big-market matchup with marquee stars!" the prophets howl from the steam grates, condemning the piteous 2.6 average Nielsen rating awarded to the 2004 Calgary vs. Tampa Bay final on ABC -- Game 7 of which pulled in a 4.2, or roughly 6.3 million American viewers. (Not included were the record-high 5.56 million Canadians ogling the game action on the CBC.)

Even with Canadians out of the mix, the merchants of doom forget that the 1994 marquee event of Mark Messier's New York Rangers seeking their first Cup in 54 years against the Vancouver Canucks drew a 5.2 for Game 7, but an average of only 2.5 for the series, although those tilts were on ESPN, which had 63 million subscribers. (ABC broadcast only three playoff games that year.) Still, that final was a 19 percent improvement over '93, when Wayne Gretzky's L.A. Kings met the proud old Montreal Canadiens. The entire '93 playoffs -- a year in which Mario Lemieux was defending Pittsburgh's second consecutive Cup and conceivably heading for a finals showdown with the Great One -- pulled a 1.3 on ESPN, presumably a hotbed of sports fans. 

So much for star power, big markets and compelling story lines. The highest-rated Cup final of this decade (3.7) was New Jersey vs. Dallas on ABC in 2000.  Even on free TV, the game's greatest names and franchises have a devil of a time even approaching the 11.9 that the World Series showdown between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Azusa and Santa Fe -- an oft-cited ratings stinkeroo -- drew in 2002.

The ice-cold reality is that hockey in the U.S. is a niche sport. 'Twas ever thus. The NHL matters where it matters, but that is still enough to live on comfortably if the league manages its coffers wisely. The perception of failure only rears its hideous mug when the notion that the NHL must attain NFL- or MLB-like status is entertained.

This brings us to another hot topic of postseason palaver: who deserves to be in the Cup final. Carolina and Anaheim are widely scorned for not being "good hockey towns." Critics carp about cobwebs on the seats at The Pond (the Ducks ranked 24th in home attendance this season). Carolina takes guff from those who insist that it is home to nothing but seed-spitting NASCAR woobergoobers when the region is actually a flocking ground for seed-spitting Northerners seeking relief from cold weather, overcrowding, high taxes and the New York Islanders.

Nothing against Raleigh or Anaheim, but personally squeaking, I'd like to see Edmonton make it. Hockey is Canada's sport, after all, and our friends to the north deserve a piece of the action after all we've done to ignore it. However,  Buffalo does not share in the blame. The NHL truly matters in Buffalo, a cold, stark, windy place where fiery pride burns bright in the face of insult (Norwood "wide right" and the Bills' four-straight Super Bowl flops), injustice (Hull's "no goal" that won the 1999 Cup final for Dallas) and 41 years without a championship in a major pro sport.

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