Easy Answer to Rogers NHL Ratings

TORONTO (May 31) — The article was prolific and thoroughly–researched. It had all the earmarks of a story written by James Bradshaw, the Globe and Mail’s exceptional media reporter.

It was also mightily complicated and replete with industry conjecture over a 44 percent decrease in Canadian–TV ratings for the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring (which followed a sizable downturn in regular–season viewership). Bradshaw’s piece from last Friday was entitled TWO YEARS INTO ITS $5.2–BILLION NHL DEAL, DID ROGERS MAKE THE RIGHT CALL? It featured a deluge of expert punditry… but no answers.

Had James B. rang yours truly for inexpert punditry, I would have simplified the ratings dilemma in two words: THE LEAFS. When indifference prevails among hockey’s most ardent followers, people lose money. When there is buzz and commotion amid the same group, profit margins erupt. If the Toronto Maple Leafs emerge from their 12–year playoff quagmire — a plausible notion involving such movers as Mike Babcock, Mitchell Marner and (shortly) Auston Matthews — the eyes that tune into hockey will multiply. Perhaps beyond comprehension. Angst in the ivory tower at Jarvis and Bloor St. will diminish accordingly.

With respect to its most pivotal hockey component, Rogers couldn’t have chosen a more inopportune time to horde national TV rights. After an inexplicable surge through November and December of 2014, the Leafs were unfailingly pathetic in the first year of the 12–season pact. Among many rancid performances in the post–2005 lockout era, nothing compared to the Blue–and–White malaise of January–to–April 2015.

Phil Kessel may be a Conn Smythe Trophy favorite with the Eastern–champion Pittsburgh Penguins right now, but he was simply a con–job for two failed coaches (Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek) here in Toronto. As if adhering to a New Year’s resolution, Fast Phil began working–to–rule once December flipped to January. One blase effort followed another and the Leafs inelegantly plummeted toward the National Hockey League basement — landing 27th among 30 teams. Babcock arrived from Detroit six weeks later with unspoken, yet fervid antipathy toward the malingering star. His posture was unmistakable: “Ensure that I’m not looking in the eyes of No. 81 when training camp begins.” Kessel was therefore dispatched to Pittsburgh on July 1. It was a swap the Leafs had to make and one the Penguins adroitly co–maneuvered.

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PHIL KESSEL (FAR–LEFT), IN ACTION AGAINST MONTREAL AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE, HAD TO BE MOVED BY THE LEAFS BEFORE MIKE BABCOCK BEGAN COACHING THE TEAM LAST SEPTEMBER.

It led to Year 2 of the Rogers deal, in which the Leafs choreographed a 30th–place finish and nearly blew it by elevating their top American Hockey League prospects late in the schedule. The promise of “pain” from Babcock — and the subsequent delivery by his club — guaranteed that fewer people would watch on TV. When the other six Canadian teams joined Toronto in a second–half free–fall, the 2016 Stanley Cup tournament belonged solely to American–based clubs (only in 1970 had this previously occurred). It, too, contributed to a ratings debacle for the national rights–holder and, disproportionately, to hypotheses over what might be “wrong” with the studio presentation at Sportsnet. But, once the Leafs begin to trend upward, I’ll be willing to bet Rogers can show an intermission test–pattern without curbing viewership.

That movement could begin as early as next season. The Matthews factor, alone, will draw innumerable on–lookers early in the schedule. It’s the reason that belts, shoe–laces and sharp objects were removed from all Rogers executives while the Leafs were making their pointless surge in March. Blowing the draft lottery would hardly have augmented Year 3 of the national–rights agreement. More October eyes will tune in should Marner crack the line–up as a 19–year–old, having been named the best Junior player in North America and MVP of the Memorial Cup tournament. Adding Steven Stamkos in free agency — though I believe remote — would spawn record viewership to begin the schedule. The 75% interest in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment shared by Rogers and Bell Canada Enterprises is likely wishing for such a development (TSN, owned by Bell, televises 26 Leaf games, regionally, in the populous Golden Horseshoe).

Hockey–related matters, however, are the domain of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Babcock. The latter recently pored water on the Stamkos conjecture. “Those big pieces that fans and media fantasize about are usually added when your team is ready; not when your team is growing,” the coach told TSN from the World Hockey Championship in Russia. If the Leafs are truly committed — as it appears — to gradual and sustainable improvement, choking off cap–space in the wake of a 30th–place finish may not be a viable option. Nor is Stamkos turning elsewhere likely to dissuade Toronto hockey zealots from camping in front of their TV’s next autumn, with Matthews (and, perhaps, Marner) being a considerable draw.

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PRIME MOVERS BEHIND THE 12–YEAR, $5.2–BILLION TELEVISION PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN ROGERS AND THE NHL IN NOVEMBER 2013. LEFT–TO–RIGHT: SCOTT MOORE (ROGERS PRESIDENT OF BROADCAST); NHL COMMISSIONER GARY BETTMAN; FORMER ROGERS PRESIDENT AND CEO, NADIR MOHAMED; FORMER PRESIDENT OF ROGERS MEDIA, KEITH PELLEY AND NHL DEPUTY–COMMISSIONER BILL DALY.

So, really, the ratings conundrum at Rogers is not about demographics, ethnicity and habit–change among potential viewers. It’s about the Maple Leafs being horrible during the first two years of the rights–holder agreement. Once the club begins to compete for a playoff spot; Division and/or Conference title, James Bradshaw will be penning articles about record TV numbers and bloated advertising rates (multiply that ten–fold for a lengthy run through the Stanley Cup tournament). Viewership “science” will give way to logic.

Bay Street governs the Canadian economy.

Hockey passion in Toronto governs the airwaves.

MEMORIAL DAY MELANCHOLY

Two of the NHL’s brightest stars from the 1970’s passed away within hours of each other on Monday. Tom Lysiak, 63, had battled Leukemia for two years while Rick MacLeish, 66, succumbed to a lengthy illness.

After a prolific Junior career with Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League, Lysiak went second overall to the Atlanta Flames in the 1973 NHL draft (behind Denis Potvin). While in Junior, he centered a line with right–winger Lanny McDonald, who the Leafs drafted fourth overall. In 1972–73, their final season at Medicine Hat, Lysiak and McDonald combined for a startling 120 goals; 173 assists and 293 points.

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Lysiak enjoyed a number of productive years with the Flames and Chicago Blackhawks between 1973–74 and 1985–86. He achieved his career high of 82 points with each club — Atlanta in 1975–76; Chicago in 1981–82. While playing for the Blackhawks, he incurred a 20–game suspension (longest–ever at the time) for an incident involving linesman Ron Foyt. In a game at Chicago Stadium against Hartford on Oct. 30, 1983, Lysiak was ejected several times from the face–off circle. After one–such occasion, he lined up on the wing and deliberately jabbed his stick behind the linesman’s knee. Foyt went sprawling to the ice.

Lysiak didn’t play again til Dec. 14.

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The only knock against MacLeish during his career was guilt–by–association. As the most gifted player on Philadelphia’s Broad St. Bullies, he was perversely overshadowed by such teammates as Dave Schultz, Don Saleski, Bob Kelly and Andre Dupont — the Flyers, in 1974, becoming the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup; then repeating in 1975. The Cannington, Ont. native had blazing speed and a quick, accurate shot. In 1972–73, he scored 50 goals; later notching 49, 38 (twice), 32 and 31. Moreover, he was money in the playoffs for Philadelphia — compiling 104 points in as many games between 1973 and 1981.

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RICK MacLEISH (19) WARMS UP FOR A GAME NEXT TO PHILADELPHIA CAPTAIN BOBBY CLARKE.

And, it’s a playoff moment at Maple Leaf Gardens for which I’ll always remember MacLeish, who thwarted a colossal upset of the Flyers in 1977. The Leafs had begun a Stanley Cup quarterfinal by winning the first two games at the Philadelphia Spectrum. A goal by Toronto left–winger Errol Thompson with 4:09 left in Game 3 at the Gardens broke a 2–2 tie. Flyers coach Fred Shero pulled goalie Wayne Stephenson for an extra attacker in the final minute. Borje Salming tried to clear the puck on his backhand, but MacLeish jumped in the air; gloved down the attempt, and beat Mike Palmateer with a low shot at 19:22 of regulation. He then scored at 2:55 of overtime to get Philadelphia back into the series. The Flyers ultimately prevailed in six games, but would have fallen into a 3–0 series hole if not for MacLeish.

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STORY AND SUMMARY FROM GAME 3 OF THE LEAFS–FLYERS QUARTERFINAL — APR. 15, 1977.

SOLID GOLD

I have never enjoyed watching basketball more than I do today. The reason? Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. He captivates me… and I’m far from alone. I remember feeling identically as a teenager when O.J. Simpson carried the football for the Buffalo Bills. His style (“slashing” is not a good word after the Trial of the Century, but it fits), lateral movement and explosive speed was a sight to behold. Curry does things that I’ve never–before seen on a court. No matter how intense the occasion, he gracefully launches the basketball from beyond three–point range… and it never even brushes the rim. How can a shooter be so routinely accurate from such a distance? Over and over again? It is truly mind–boggling.

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WHAT A SHOW STEPH CURRY AND KEVIN DURANT PUT ON IN THE NBA WESTERN FINAL. TNT/TSN

As such, I now have a second “favorite team” in sports. The Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League began ripping apart my guts in the late–1960’s, but I stand by them, emotionally, to this day (yes, there were also Grey Cup victories in 1983–91–96–97, 2004 and 2012). Thanks to Curry, the Warriors have joined the Argos as a team I want to win. To such an extent that Game 7 of the NBA West final Monday night kept me away from Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. I watched San Jose and Pittsburgh only during commercial–breaks of the Golden State–Oklahoma City match. When Kevin Durant of the Thunder began to hit three–pointers midway through the fourth quarter — shaving a once–healthy Golden State lead to four — I actually found myself getting nervous. I wanted so badly the chance to watch Curry at least four more times this spring; to see him spin magic against his only peer in professional sport: LeBron James.

And, now, it’s going to happen. Beginning Thursday night, in Oakland.

A second consecutive NBA Finals encounter between the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.

I can hardly wait.

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NEARLY AS ENJOYABLE AS WATCHING STEPH CURRY MONDAY NIGHT WERE THE GREAT TV AERIAL SHOTS OF OAKLAND AND NEIGHBORING SAN FRANCISCO FROM THE GOODYEAR BLIMP. TNT/TSN IMAGES

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ALBERT STILL MARV–ELOUS

He’ll be 75 years old on June 12; he looks 55, and he sounds exactly as he did while the radio voice of the New York Rangers nearly half–a–century ago. In some circles today, he is known as “Kenny Albert’s father.”

But, nobody — and I mean NOBODY — calls a basketball game like Marv Albert.

This became clear once again during the Golden State–Oklahoma City NBA semifinal, which Albert broadcast throughout North America on Turner Network Television (TNT). Games were simulcast here in Canada by Sportsnet and TSN. Albert worked alongside former NBA stars Chris Webber and Reggie Miller as the Warriors rebounded from a 3–1 series deficit to eliminate the Thunder. His signature rasp, and his storied call of an arcing field goal — “Yesssss!” — were fully on display in the Western Conference final.

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MARV ALBERT (RIGHT) AND CHRIS WEBBER DURING GAME 7 OF THE NBA WEST FINAL IN OAKLAND.

Albert and Vin Scully are the two most–venerable play–callers in American professional sport. Marv was radio voice of the New York Knicks from 1967 to 2004, and of the NHL Rangers from 1965 to 1995 (whereupon his son, Kenny, assumed the role). He became nationally renowned during the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s while calling NBA and NFL games on television for NBC. During that time, he frequently guested with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Kenny Albert has followed in his dad’s tracks.

Along with the Rangers radio gig, he is the play–by–play man (working with former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston) for a weekly NFL game on FOX. He also does Major League Baseball during the regular season and playoffs for FOX; it was Kenny who called Jose Bautista’s now–legendary bat–flip against Texas in Game 5 of the American League Division Series last October at Rogers Centre.

But, I can’t get enough of his ol’ man.

Marv Albert can still bring it as well as anyone in the sports broadcasting industry.

BAY AREA CLOSING IN ON BEANTOWN

In the realm of professional sport, the first 1½ decades of the new millennium belonged solely to Boston. Between 2001 and 2014, the city captured nine championships — four by the NFL’s New England Patriots; three by the Boston Red Sox; one each by the NHL Bruins and NBA Celtics. Today, however, the place to be is the San Francisco Bay Area and its southern tier. While the once–mighty 49ers of the NFL have fallen on hard times (5–11 last season), baseball, basketball and hockey are soaring. The San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014. And, we’re in an even–numbered year once again. Golden State is the defending NBA champion; San Jose the NHL’s Western Conference titlist. For the first time, professional teams from the Bay Area are competing simultaneously for championships. In a five–day span beginning on Thursday, four games will be played: June 2 and 5 at Oracle Arena in Oakland; June 4 and 6 at the S–A–P Center in San Jose. If necessary, the Warriors will host Game 5 of the basketball final on June 12; the Sharks, Game 6 of the Stanley Cup series June 13. It is quite the time to be a sports fan in No–Cal.

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S–A–P CENTER IN SAN JOSE: HOME TO GAMES 3, 4 AND 6 OF THE STANLEY CUP FINAL.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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