The NHL and NBC Keep Their Promise, As Fans Win Big with Every Game on TV

I’ve heard a lot of negative thoughts about the NHL’s new deal with NBC ever since the day it was signed. The sport will continue to not get the exposure it deserves, even a few games on ESPN would have been better. The oddest thing I heard cynicism about was the clause in the contract that required every game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to be on national television. Some were thinking they’d dump it on the SyFy channel, or E!, or Universal Sports or any of the other myriad cable doldrums the networks of NBC Universal inhabit.

If you tuned into the networks of NBC this weekend and saw the schedule release yesterday, however, you’d be hard-pressed to continue thinking that way. NBC aired 13 hours of hockey coverage between NBC and NBC Sports Network on Saturday, including four games and what amounted to more than two hours of studio coverage. This capped off a week in which NBC and NBC Sports Network combined to air a total of 38 hours of hockey coverage, between 12 games and tons of studio shows, you can’t say the NHL’s exciting race to the finish went ignored. Unless you were watching your local team on Saturday, if you loved hockey and live in the US, you were glued to NBCSN.

Onto the playoff schedule. NBC Sports Network and NBC are set to air at least 26 playoff games over the first 12 days of the post-season. That’s great, right there. Hockey fans would settle for that. But NBC promised “Every Game, Every Night”, and they’ve delivered. At least 10 games are slated to air on cable’s CNBC, which is in 100 million homes (20 million more than NBCSN, awkwardly enough) and will have a studio devoted to it’s coverage.

The addition of the NHL Network may be a bit of a tipping point for some. The network isn’t in nearly as many homes as NBCSN even. But, let’s face it, except for a couple of the weaker cable companies – if you want the NHL Network, you have it. It’s where the diehard fans are, and it was a smart choice to bring the Stanley Cup Playoffs to them. Now, in all likelihood, they will be doing simulcasts of CBC and TSN and local feeds (though the local feeds will get NHL Network’s own graphics). However, it’s only five games, most of them are from that Florida-New Jersey series, and it’s unlikely they’ll get the rights to any Game 7 action either. Maybe in a few years, the NHL will deem those games as more useful back on Center Ice/GameCenter, but for now, this is a solid move.

Another solid move? The way the start times are often staggered. Now, I’d have liked to see more of this, but there are only four occasions of overlapping start times in the first 12 nights of the post-season. I’d like to see NBC start up a Twitter account, similar to the ones CBS did for March Madness, that alert people to games closing in on exciting moments or headed to overtime, to give casual fans that ability to flip around all night and constantly see something spectacular.

Not everything is sunshine and roses, of course. 7:30 p.m. ET starts for both San Jose/St. Louis in St. Louis and Detroit/Nashville in Nashville. Why couldn’t these two,¬†especially¬†Sharks/Blues, be moved at least to 8 p.m. ET and at best 9 p.m. ET? Why does this league continually punish fans on the west coast who need to work until 5 p.m. or later? There’s no reason that San Jose/St. Louis series should start before 7 p.m. CT at least. Considering that both games are on CNBC, and not affecting the NBCSN doubleheader’s, this seemed like a particularly egregious gaffe.

But largely, this is the culmination of a decade of hoping for better television coverage of sports’ most thrilling two months. Ever since TSN gained stronger playoff rights to the NHL in 2002, Canada has been ahead of the United States in terms of this. Before 2002, ESPN’s coverage was much better than CBC and Sportsnet’s, simply because CBC owned everything after round one, but couldn’t devote the necessary coverage to all of round two. ESPN’s coverage weakened after ’02, and OLN/VERSUS haven’t been able to do more than they have, which is go doubleheaders every night for a month until the Conference Finals. It’s fine for the basic puckhead, but you know it can be better.

With this playoff schedule, fans in the United States are even, if not better. CBC affiliate CHEX (which is largely available in Ontario) and will be forced into duty for a few playoff games due to time conflicts. This means that, for the most part, fans in the US will get equal, in some cases stronger access to the Stanley Cup Playoffs than their Canadian counterparts. But let’s not get nationalistic here. The NHL has won great coverage for their fans in both nations, and for that, everyone should be happy. At least until all of this begins again on Wednesday.