The 'perfect storm,' they called it a year ago. The dream Memorial Cup at precisely the right time.
A record-setting London Knights team as the host squad, teen phenom Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic in the field ... and a locked out NHL, making Canadian junior hockey's showcase event the only game in town.
Almost predictably, hockey-starved Canadians responded to the 2005 Memorial Cup as you'd expect they would. The tournament -- which also included the Ottawa 67's and defending champ Kelowna Rockets -- produced record audiences for Rogers Sportsnet, for both overall average (555,000) and the championship game (827,000). The final, which featured the Knights vs. Crosby, had a peak number of 1.02 million.
Surely, you'd think, the kind of numbers that can't be matched at this year's Cup, which begins tonight in Moncton, N.B.
"I don't know if we can reach last year's audience numbers ... I'd be surprised if we did," admits Rob Corte, who's heading up Sportsnet's production crew in New Brunswick. "But we still hope to get significant numbers."
Those hopes took a bit of a hit Wednesday when the Edmonton Oilers advanced to the Western Conference final in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But all isn't lost.
Under similar circumstances two years ago, the Memorial Cup produced decent numbers for Sportsnet. The 2004 tourney average was 101,000, and the Kelowna-Gatineau final attracted 238,000 viewers -- a solid rating for junior hockey. And that was with the Calgary Flames driving toward the Stanley Cup final.
Sportsnet has the necessary storylines in place to build an audience this time.
There's former NHL coach Ted Nolan and the host Wildcats; soon-to-be Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy behind the Quebec Remparts bench, and the OHL champ Peterborough Petes, who seem to have alumni everywhere in hockey (trust me, you'll know it if you cross paths with one).
Corte is also hopeful the big-market Vancouver Giants, who were pulling in more than 10,000 per game for home playoff games at the end of the WHL title run, can help sell viewers on the Memorial Cup out west.
Turns out the Giants and host Wildcats play tomorrow night in front of a sellout crowd at Moncton Coliseum, when the NHL playoffs are dark. Hockey Night in Moncton might indeed do the trick for viewers used to getting a dose of Saturday evening hockey.
Just give it a shot.
"You have all these young stars and the passion of hockey" said Corte. "Once you sample the product, you see how good it is."
PUCK DROPPINGS: Edmonton Oilers, Canada's team? The CBC sure hopes so, and the numbers suggest it might happen. Game 6 of the Oilers-San Jose Sharks series Wednesday night pulled in 1.749 million viewers, and the series average (1.422 million) topped Ottawa-Buffalo (1.368 million). However, Game 5 of the Sens-Sabres series produced the best single-game viewership of Round 2 (1.819 million). The Senators also had the top two numbers of Round 1 ... CBC's Round 2 audience average was up 24% over 1998 (1.123 million), the last year both the Leafs and Canucks missed the playoffs ... TSN's second-round average audience (464,000) rose 22% over 2004.
THEY SAID IT: TSN hockey analyst Pierre McGuire, on Dominik Hasek, during Off The Record: "I don't think he should be playing for the Ottawa Senators again."
AROUND THE DIAL: An eye infection will delay Lou Piniella's debut as a Fox baseball analyst. The ex-major league manager had been scheduled to work tomorrow's White Sox-Cubs game but was forced to bow out ... Sportsnet's crew at the Memorial Cup: Junior hockey guru Peter Loubardias, analyst Sam Cosentino and host Daren Millard ... All games in the tournament are being broadcast in high-definition format ... CHL.ca is offering webcasts of every Memorial Cup game.