Scattered Clouds 47° Good Afternoon
Scattered Clouds 47° Good Afternoon
SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Do you believe in miracles? Every playoff hockey game on TV!

Marc Staal #18 and Artem Anisimov #42 of

Marc Staal #18 and Artem Anisimov #42 of the New York Rangers check Zack Smith #15 of the Ottawa Senators into the boards in the first period. (April 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Hockey has had a difficult relationship with American TV for 72 years, since the experimental forerunner of WNBC in New York first televised the sport when the Rangers hosted the Canadiens at the Garden in the winter of 1940.

Ever since, the story mostly has been anemic ratings, complaints about not seeing the puck clearly and spotty national television contracts.

But the NHL believes it finally has caught a break, one the league and its TV friends are trying to maximize during the current playoffs.

The spark was Comcast's purchase of NBC last year, which by pure coincidence merged the NHL's national cable and broadcast partners. (Comcast already had owned Versus, since re-branded as NBC Sports Network.)

Soon NBC was renewing its deal with the league -- for a reported $2 billion over 10 years -- and, voila: Synergy!

"Probably there was no single better beneficiary of the merger than the NHL,'' commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We have never been scheduled or produced better than now.''

Some beefed-up coverage and marketing was evident during the regular season, but this is when it counts, and the centerpiece of the pitch is that for the first time, every Stanley Cup playoff game will be shown nationally in the U.S.

That is a bonus for fans, clearly, but it also advances one of the league's priorities: Keeping people interested in the playoffs after their local favorite is eliminated -- a problem as acute in New York as in any market.

"We think this takes us to a whole new level that engages fans in whatever market they are in, wherever they have moved, whether their team has been eliminated,'' Bettman said. "You can get all the hockey you want.''

Here's how it works: NBC Sports Network (in about 80 million homes) will be the primary cable outlet, with many games also on CNBC (about 100 million homes). A small number of games will spill over on to the NHL Network (43 million), which is owned by the league.

NBC itself (about 115 million homes) will continue to carry games on weekends, plus Games 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. NBC Sports Network has Games 3 and 4.

In the opening round, national coverage other than games on NBC is blacked out in the markets of participating teams, where local channels such as MSG have priority.

For example, outside New York, last night's Senators-Rangers game was seen on the NHL Network. (NBC passed on the Rangers-Senators series altogether; Ottawa is not a juicy draw for U.S. television, and that market is not measured by Nielsen.)

But after the first round, every game will be a national exclusive. Until last season, some second-round games still were shown on regional networks. (We will miss you, Sam Rosen.)

The unified front has enabled NBC and the league to work together in marketing the playoffs, which they have done in a big way. Note a 21-foot, 6,600-pound Stanley Cup replica in Times Square this week. It doubles as a water fountain so fans can "drink from the Cup." Get it?

"I think really the feeling for all of us is that the Stanley Cup is one of the best platforms that, up until now, has been under-marketed and under-sold, really,'' said John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer.

All of this is excellent news for hard-core hockey mavens. "It super-serves the hockey fan,'' said Jon Miller, the programming chief for NBC Sports Network. "If you're a hockey fan, we're the place to come.''

Fair enough. Postseason hockey is among the best forms of sports entertainment, so the more the merrier. But the super-sized coverage is unlikely to change a perennial reality of springtime hockey in New York:

If the NHL and NBC hope to keep Big Town interested, they had better hope the Rangers stick around for a while.

New York Sports