2009 Stanley Cup Finals: Did the NHL Manufacture a Game Seven?

Brian Tuohy@@thefixisintuohyCorrespondent IJune 10, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JUNE 09:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins speaks to the media during a press conference after Game Six of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals at the Mellon Arena on June 9, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Before anyone assaults me with the nonsensical "you don't know hockey" arguments, I ask that you hear me out prior to the personal attacks.

Since the pre-lockout days, the NHL has been begging for mainstream credibility.  For many, the league was no longer even considered a "major" league.

However, since the NHL tweaked its rules in the wake of the lockout and parted ways with longtime TV partner ESPN, the league has been making strides to regain what it once had years ago.

As a gauge for this, look no further than the ratings for the Stanley Cup Finals.  In each successive year since the new-look NHL took the ice, ratings have risen. 

This year is no exception.  The ratings have increased with each successive game played during the Finals.

The NHL's main television partner is now NBC.  Because the league took such a hit during the lockout, it signed an unusual deal with the network.  It isn't paid in the same way other networks pay the likes of the NFL, NBA, or MLB: Up front and in full.  Instead, NBC and the NHL actually split the profits the network sees from its broadcasts of NHL games.

That deal, struck as the league reemerged from the lockout, was to come to an end at the conclusion of this '08-'09 season.  If NBC decided they didn't want to re-up with the NHL, the league was going to once again be without major media coverage in the US. 

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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wasn't about to grovel at ESPN's doorstep, and none of the other major networks were calling.  The NHL needed to keep NBC as its partner.

NBC has the broadcast rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics.  Hockey, complete with national teams filled with NHL stars, is a major television draw during the Olympics.  It is also a great promotional tool for the league.  Both could see profit from working together in this venue.

So it only made sense that after Game Four of this year's Stanley Cup Finals (in which the Penguins had tied the series up at two games a piece), NBC and the NHL agreed to a two year extension of their previous TV agreement.

Knowing how NBC co-existed with the NBA during the time the two were partners (and for an in-depth overview of this cozy situation, read the book "Money Players"), it would not surprise me to see NBC and the NHL becoming more and more intertwined.

Now if both the NHL and NBC stood to gain equally in seeing ratings rise by the Stanley Cup Finals reaching a frenzied Game Seven, could such an outcome be prearranged by these partners?

Could the NHL/NBC conglomerate "ask" the Red Wings to intentionally drop Game Six to force a Game Seven?  While it may seem far-fetched on the surface, think of what is occurring behind the scenes and what a potential payday could lurk in a Game Seven.  In such a scenario, hype increases, promotion increases, interest increases, and without a doubt, profit for the renewed partnership increases.

Everyone wins.  Potentially even the "loser" Red Wings if they take Game Seven at home.

Of course, you skeptics out there would say this is impossible.  You believe that no such thing could be arranged.  Just watch the end of Game Six, you yell, and see how often the Red Wings were on the verge of scoring and anyone could see that they wanted to win.

But I did watch the game.  I saw the Red Wings get off just three shots in the first period, and follow that up with only nine more in the second session.  I saw a team ready to hoist the Cup play like nothing was on the line. 

Yes, they appeared to pour it on with a greater fury as the clock ticked down. 

But the Red Wings still lost.  Game Seven will follow.  The NHL's collective smile is as big as NBC's.

Remember, as much as you may love the game, it is a business first and a sport second.  And professional sports can be just as corrupt as any other business. 

UPDATE:  After I wrote this article and Game Seven was played, a report on ESPN.com showed that this final game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was the most watched NHL game in the past 36 years.  It averaged over 8 million viewers and held a 4.3 rating, the highest since Game Seven between New Jersey and Anaheim in 2003. 

But most of you would just say that it was all just luck, a mere coincidence, that Game Seven even took place.  And the biggest benefactor just happened to be the NHL and its broadcast partner NBC. 

No, no one had anything to gain by there being a Game Seven.

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