Puck 'honeymoon' doesn't last

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:27 AM ET

NHL TV ratings in Canada can't match 'perfect storm' of first post-lockout season

No matter how deep the love affair, this much still remains true: The honeymoon never lasts forever.

So it is with Canadians and their passion for hockey, at least in terms of television viewership for NHL games. About two months into the season, ratings are down across the board. Not that anybody's truly surprised.

After all, last season was that once-in-a-lifetime experience. Denied NHL hockey by the darkness of a year-long lockout, Canadians flocked back to their TV sets in record levels last fall when their favourite game finally returned from the wilderness.

"Everybody in the hockey business in Canada knew it was very unlikely we'd go up (in audience levels) from an all-time high last year," said TSN president Phil King.

"You think Canadians missed hockey? They came back in a huge way. They hadn't seen (an NHL) game in over a year."

Throw in the rule changes that opened up the game, the much-heralded debut of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, and strong storylines coming out of every Canada market and you had, as King puts it, "the perfect storm."

TSN notched six of the top 10 single-game audiences in network history in 2005-06. Its season average (476,000) was a record.

This season? Back to reality, you might say. TSN's average at this time a year ago was 601,000; right now, it sits at 428,000, a drop of 29%.

It's the same story for CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. A year ago, the network was basking in its best audiences in years: 1.547 million for the opening game of the Saturday doubleheader, and a huge 1.047 million for the nightcap. This season, the numbers sit at 1.295 million (down 16%) and 734,000 (off 30%) respectively.

"I was thinking (ratings) would continue to go up," admitted Joel Darling, HNIC's executive producer. "But last year was a bit of a honeymoon. We'd lost a season, and people really missed the game and came back in a big way. Is the honeymoon over? I guess it is, in some ways. (Audiences) have levelled out a bit."

Sens numbers down

Regional audiences on Rogers Sportsnet have suffered, too. Ottawa Senators games have dropped 49%, but that likely also speaks to the team's at times middling play so far.

Here's the positive note, though. Line up the numbers against the last pre-lockout season (2003-04), and they're up almost everywhere across the board (the late CBC game being the lone exception). TSN's games are up a whopping 33% over the same time in '03-04.

"You've got to compare apples to apples," said King. "This year, we wanted to make sure we were as high or higher than before the lockout. We got our second highest audience all-time for the opener."

And, as Darling points out, "once you get past Christmas and into the New Year, interest will continue to grow."

THE REAL CENTRE ICE STORY: Senators fans paying for the NHL Centre Ice premium package on Rogers digital cable or Bell ExpressVu are feeling a little cheated these days. The Sens are asking them to fork over another $10.95 for each of five games they've earmarked for pay-per-view this season. Yeah, it sucks and it seems like a greedy cash grab. But Centre Ice isn't exactly what many of you seem to think it is. The NHL bills it as an "out-of-market" service, meaning it's your way to access games not played by the team in your home town. For example, if you're a Leafs fan in Ottawa or a Sens fan in Vancouver, you have a way to see your team play. By rights, the Sens don't have to allow any of their "non-televised" games to appear locally on Centre Ice. They blacked out several home games the first year it was offered here. That changed as fan demand grew. Demand that has obviously grown -- perhaps wrongly so -- into major expectation.

YOUR GAME, YOUR WAY: Lost in the announcement earlier this week that TSN had secured rights for Euro 2008 soccer was this little gem -- every game will be presented live on TV and the Internet. It's part of Canada's first all-broadband channel launched this week on the network's website, tsn.ca. In addition to providing SportsCentre highlight clips and replays of some of TSN's most popular shows, TSN Broadband plans to offer live and on-demand coverage of the world junior hockey championship. Included among 11 webcasts will be every Team Canada and medal-round match. Important to note, given the final is on a Friday afternoon in Eastern Canada. "It's geared toward people who can't get near a TV," said King. "That's the way the world is going. We can't think of ourselves as just a static TV network anymore."

AROUND THE DIAL: The Score confirmed yesterday it has taken over Canadian TV rights for the NCAA men's basketball tournament, announcing a four-year deal through 2010. Its multi-platform coverage will include online and mobile phone content ... It's a double dip of ESPN's NFL Countdown this weekend, with a bonus edition airing tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. on TSN.


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