SUN Hockey Pool

CBC retains puck rights

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 2:50 PM ET

When Don Cherry, Gary Bettman and the Stanley Cup appear in the same room, as they did at noon yesterday, it is clear something big is up.

Yes, hockey would have carried on if CBC hadn't signed a blockbuster six-year contract extension to preserve the Canadian institution that is Hockey Night In Canada.

In time fans, viewers and broadcasters would have settled in to whatever spot on the dial Saturday night hockey landed.

But more than just an era was at stake before the deal, believed to be in the $100 million per season range, was announced at CBC's Front St. headquarters.

For the network, if it had lost hockey, which was a real threat a few months back, it would have been time to put up the shutters on CBC Sports.

For the NHL, after essentially giving away U.S. rights to NBC and losing ESPN as a cable partner, commissioner Bettman now has a pocketful of cash to quiet his critics.

Bettman wouldn't confirm numbers but said that the deal is the richest contract the league has with any partner in Canada or the U.S.

"For a national deal, this is the biggest," Bettman said following a press conference to announce the deal.

There was something else at stake for Canadian hockey fans. Love him or hate him (as too many inexplicably do with Cherry) the much-maligned but undisputedly much-watch Coach's Corner also would have been gone.

"I don't think it would have worked anywhere else, this would have been the end," Cherry said. "(Hockey Night) should be on Saturday night and it should be on CBC."

Apparently Bettman, who takes at least as many shots from dissenters as Cherry, saw the value as well.

Though the CBC contract wasn't due to expire until the end of next season, he began kicking tires in the Canadian broadcast community this past spring. After finding interest, the commissioner had the ammunition to get serious with CBC.

"It was a testament to our tenacity to get it done" Bettman said. "We decided this was where hockey should be."

Surely though, Bettman also was well aware that CBC couldn't afford to let the NHL slip away now that it is no longer an Olympic broadcaster. The reported $65 million per season in the current deal wasn't going to do it.

For its part, CBC wasn't about to give away the $600 million, give or take a few, without some throw-ins.

Included in the package are rights to air its Saturday night games on the Internet, essentially allowing viewers access to whatever games it is producing free of charge.

To the predictable cries that the deal is an abuse of taxpayers money -- a tired refrain if there ever was one -- CBC brass was ready with an equally predictable answer.

"This is financed completely on private money," said Richard Stursberg, the network's vice-president of TV. "Advertising revenues from the property cover in their entirety the rights and production costs."

The contract, which kicks in for the 2008-09 season, has some twists that will allow Bettman to sweeten the deal for TSN, the clear frontrunner to renew its cable contract.

CBC no longer has a lock on all playoff games involving Canadian teams. Hockey Night gets to pick the first two series as well as the fourth, sixth and eighth. If more than two Canadian teams make it, then, the cable provider gets a potential big ratings boost.

As well, Bettman said there will be a reduction of Maple Leafs games on Saturday nights down to 23 from 25 this season another possible incentive for the secondary contract.

In the end, it was all a price CBC had no choice to pay if CBC Sports was to remain relevant.

"This is a property that would be fair to say dwarfs all other properties we own," Stursberg said. "It was very key to us."

No more Olympics, no more Brian Williams and after next season, no Grey Cup. But the shiny silver mug, on display in all its glory yesterday, isn't going anywhere.

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WHAT'S THE DEAL?

- Six years beginning in the 2008-09 season through the 2013-2014 Stanley Cup finals.

- Includes exclusive Canadian rights to all games in the final plus the all-star game and league awards programming.

- As many as seven mid-week games per season in addition to staple the Saturday night doubleheaders.

- A slight reduction of Leafs appearances on Saturday nights to 23 per season.

- The ability to show all games the CBC holds rights on the Internet, video on demand plus content for mobile phones.

- Increase of games produced in high definition.


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