On June 7, NBC televised Game 1 of the NBA Finals and earned a 10.5 rating in the Nielsens. One night later ABC aired Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, a triple-overtime duel for the ages in which the Stars defeated the Devils 1-0. That match earned a 4.2. That was the highest national rating a hockey game had received since 1980, when the Cup-deciding Flyers-Islanders Game 6 pulled a 4.4 on CBS.
A triumph for ABC? Yes, but.... In that same Thursday time slot one week earlier, the network had aired the week's top-rated program, a certain game show that earned a 16.0. If you're scoring at home, that's Regis Philbin 16.0, David Stern 10.5 and the NHL residing somewhere in the Freaks & Geeks Nielsen netherworld. Though the ratings were small for prime time, you can't blame ABC. The network's production values, camera angles and announcers, especially analysts John Davidson and the underrated Barry Melrose, were superb, as was the game.
Then, two nights later, for the second consecutive season the Stanley Cup was clinched late at night, on network television, in an overtime. This year's clincher received a 5.2 in the overnight Nielsens (which should end up being about equal to Thursday night's figure when all the numbers are crunched). You could have flipped the channel just as Devil Jason Arnott scored the Cup-winning goal, and caught NBC's Saturday Night Live, whose original cast was labeled The Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Despite herculean efforts, that designation may still apply to the NHL.