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Why a San Jose-Montreal Stanley Cup Final Is Bad for TV

Stephen DContributor IIMay 13, 2010

SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 04:  Brian Gionta #21 of the Montreal Canadiens is defended by Rob Blake #4 of the San Jose Sharks during an NHL game at the HP Pavilion  on March 4, 2010 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Last night, the Montreal Canadiens beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, and about a week ago, the San Jose Sharks eliminated the defending Western Conference champions, Detroit Red Wings.

The Penguins and Red Wings dueled in the Stanley Cup Finals the past two seasons, and were big rating draws in the U.S., with Game Seven of last year's final drawing a 4.3 Nielsen Rating of roughly eight million viewers.

The 4.3 rating was the highest rating for a NHL game since Game Seven of the 2003 finals between Anaheim and New Jersey, which drew a 4.6 rating.

But now that the Penguins and Red Wings are out of the tournament, the remaining  teams will have to do. However, possibly the worst-case scenario for the NHL is a Montreal-San Jose final.

Why?

Well, for one thing, NBC doesn't want a team in the finals that won't factor in the Nielsen Ratings. As such, a Canadian team like Montreal would drag down the U.S. ratings.

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Conversely, it seems pretty obvious if you were to ask CBC what their dream final for this season would be, as their response would be the “Canadiens vs. anyone.”

NBC? They would have to say that their dream final at this moment would have to feature any team except Montreal.

Then again, Canadian teams have always been a drag on the Stanley Cup Final ratings.

In 2004, the Calgary Flames were the first Canadian team to a advance to the Cup Finals since in 1994, when they played, and eventually lost to, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The seven-game series drew only an average rating of 2.6 out of the five games that were televised by ABC, at the time the lowest-rated final in the U.S, despite a Game Seven draw of a 4.2 rating.

The 2006 Cup Finals between the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers drew a dismal 2.3 average rating on NBC for a seven-game series, with Game Seven drawing an embarrassing 3.3 rating for the lowest-rated Game Seven in the last 15 years.

It was the same story the very next year, when the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators clashed in the Cup Final. The three games on NBC drew an average of only 1.6, with Game Three drawing a 1.1 rating, making it the lowest-rated Stanley Cup final game ever on network TV, as well as NBC’s lowest-rated night ever.

Another factor are teams based in the south. The Lightning, Hurricanes, and the West Coast-based Ducks don’t exactly come from traditional hockey markets, and aren't exactly big rating draws for national TV.

When it comes to a final between Canada and the U.S. in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and possibly down the road in other championships like the NBA Finals and the World Series, Canada will be rooting for the last team standing in their country, and back them with heavy pride. The U.S. will be putting on the bedsheets once the final series is set. 

That may not be exactly true, but the way the U.S. TV ratings were for the last three times a Canadian team made it to a final, it seemed that way.

Also, for the San Jose Sharks, who often get little attention on national TV, this is a pivotal time for them to get a ton of profile starting this weekend, when they duel Chicago in the Western Conference finals.

But if the Sharks advance to the Cup Finals and play Montreal, their chances of getting a shot at the NBC Game of the Week next season might be snapped. Playing Boston or Philadelphia in the finals would be much safer.

In other words, if the Sharks don’t play either the Bruins or the Flyers, then ratings will be a disappointment.

As of this moment, the four surviving teams in the U.S. are from the top 10 TV markets in the country: No. 3 Chicago, No. 4 Philadelphia, No. 6 San Jose, and No. 7 Boston. If NBC gets only one of those teams in the final, they just might have to reflect on what could have been.

But should the NHL or NBC panic yet? No, I don’t think so.

There is still two conference finals series to be decided, with the Canadiens presumed to be the favorites in whomever they end up facing in the Eastern Conference finals.

While Montreal-San Jose would be the worst possible match up in terms of ratings in the U.S., a Chicago-Montreal series would fare better despite the involvement of a Canadian team. With Montreal and Chicago two teams from the NHL's “Original Six” era, it would be the first such scenario since 1979.

However, the last time two American teams met in the finals other than Pittsburgh and Detroit, was the 2003 finals. That's a long time.

I believe the NHL needs one of those teams absent from the final just to see where it's ratings would go without their version of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Both NBC and CBC will be watching with interest who will be going to the Stanley Cup final.

Both will be hoping for a certain matchup, each with different ratings potential on either side of the border.

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