SUN Hockey Pool

Game on for hockey talk

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:27 AM ET

It wasn't rock bottom yet, but it sure felt like it. And it spoke volumes.

"The night we won (world) junior gold in Grand Forks," Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean was saying the other day, "I was introducing The Pink Panther at the Leaside Arena in (East York).

"That's how desperate the hockey year was for me."

While MacLean now admits Movie Night in Canada -- and the small-town rinks he visited along the way -- "kind of revived my faith in hockey," make no mistake about this.

None of it was a replacement for the Stanley Cup playoffs that were killed by the NHL lockout. Or the buzz he felt at arenas around the league when all was normal with the world.

Just like it is again. Finally.

"We're back to what really matters," said Doug Beeforth, the president of Rogers Sportsnet, which owns regional rights to all six Canadian teams, including the Senators. "I don't think anyone thought (the lockout) would go as long as it did."

Now comes the matter of luring the viewers and the fans back to the NHL. In some U.S. markets, it will be a mammoth undertaking.

But Canadian broadcasters will tell you a vastly different tale.

"I thought awhile ago that there would be a short period where Canadian fans would punish hockey and punish the players for what they did," said Beeforth. "But all of a sudden, everyone is talking hockey and the more I hear it, the more it leads me to believe there won't be anybody on the sidelines.

"Now I wonder whether this might be the most anticipated season in a long, long time. My attitude is very bullish now. I think we're going to come back with a bang."

"It never ceases to amaze me," added Rick Chisholm, TSN's senior VP of production. "Everyone's talking hockey, and they're talking about it positively."

Evidence is growing to back up those sentiments:

- CBC reports Hockey Night has more than a dozen confirmed sponsors lined up for the 2005-06 season. And none of them at a discounted rate, said Rene Bertrand, CBC's executive director of media sales.

"That would suggest the demand is equal to or stronger than what we had (in 2003-04)," he said.

- More than 500,000 Canadian viewers watched last Friday's draft lottery -- 378,000 on TSN, another 137,000 on RDS. The two networks had a national audience reach of 1.871 million viewers. RDS' website set a one-day record with 2.6 million page views. TSN.ca recorded 3.44 million.

The buzz surrounding the world juniors and Memorial Cup in London were tangible reminders to Canadians that while the NHL was ailing, the game they love surely wasn't.

"A lot of us found out (during the lockout) what an absolutely important part of our culture in Canada the hockey rink is," new Hockey Night voice Jim Hughson said during a conference call Wednesday. "That didn't go away. The game at the NHL level could come back as strong or stronger than ever because of that."

Said Beeforth: "Canadians seemed to have moved beyond any annoyance or resentment (toward the NHL). They've been thirsty for a long time, and the truck with all the water bottles has arrived.

"They can have as much to drink now as they want."


Videos

Photos