It's almost become a rite of spring for Senators fans. And a rather odd one at that.
As the stretch drive toward the Stanley Cup playoffs heats up, their favourite NHL team seems to disappear from the TV airwaves with greater frequency.
Check it out. In the four-plus months leading up to the Olympic break, 56 of 66 Senators games were televised by either Rogers Sportsnet, A-Channel, CBC, TSN or RDS.
The screen has been dark for Sens fans five times already since the Turin Games ended, and two games next week (Monday vs. Atlanta, Wednesday at Buffalo) won't be on free TV. That's seven non-televised games out of 26 since the beginning of March -- a total that would be higher if Sportsnet hadn't added last Friday's game in Buffalo, and CBC didn't pick up home contests at Scotiabank Place the next two Saturdays.
"It's a higher percentage (of non-televised games) than before the break," conceded Jim Steel, the Senators VP of broadcasting.
How to fix the problem?
The Senators are working on it. Sportsnet's regional deal with the Sens, which has two more years to run, allows it to air as many as 26 games per season (the 'Net went with 23 this year, a slight gain over 2003-04).
A new contract is currently being negotiated with A-Channel, and perhaps it might contain more games.
The missing link: Pay-per-view telecasts, which have helped fill the void for NHL fans in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. The Sens are in the process of obtaining a licence for pay-per-view telecasts, but Steel doubts everything will be in place to offer such games next season.
"We'll definitely do it for the following season," he said. "When we finally get the licence, we'll fill the (broadcast schedule) holes with pay-per-view."
Senators fans have a similar option already available -- it's called NHL Centre Ice. But no doubt some will balk at the thought of paying $200 a season for hundreds of games they really don't want to watch.
Pay-per-view narrows the focus to home team. Yes, fans will need to shell out some extra bucks. But after some initial grumbling, bet on enough folks ponying up the cash.
Especially when the only other option -- short of visiting your neighbourhood pub -- is a blank TV screen.
The best news of all of this: One way or another, the Senators want to end the 'no TV' dilemma for their fans.
"At some point, we'd love to get all our games on TV," said Steel.
Especially the ones that get played when it counts the most.
OPENING PITCH: Sportsnet has shortened up its Blue Jays analyst rotation by one for 2006. Ex-Jays Pat Tabler, Rance Mulliniks and Darrin Fletcher will share the chair beside second-year play-by-play man Jamie Campbell. Gone from the group is Tom Candiotti, now the Arizona Diamondbacks analyst ... Buoyed by a 62% increase in ratings last year and with a growing buzz around the team, the 'Net has boosted its schedule to a record 122 games -- including Tuesday's 7 p.m. opener against the Minnesota Twins ... TSN will air 23 Jays games this season, down from 42 a year ago, when the NHL was in the dark. Tabler and Rod Black are again the TSN crew in the booth ... All Jays home games this season on both networks are being produced in high-definition format ... Fox begins its Saturday game of the week schedule on May 20. Surprise, surprise, there's nary a Jays game in sight.
PUCK DROPPINGS: Lost in all the grousing over the CBC not airing a Sabres-Senators game two Saturdays back: Hockey Night in Canada already had a second game on its plate (Penguins-Canadiens) in the early timeslot. If you wanted to bitch about a game being dropped, this should have been your target. Drop the Maple Leafs, you say? It'll never, ever happen. Say what you will about the CBC's love affair with the Leafs, but it's a cold, hard fact that no Canadian team attracts bigger audiences -- and the ad dollars that go along with it. Any private network (CTV or Global) that might snare HNIC rights away from CBC someday will see exactly the same thing. They are in business to make money, after all.
IT FIGURES: CBC's coverage of the world figure skating championships in Calgary averaged 645,000 viewers per night, down 9% from 2005 in Moscow (711,000). Blame a post-Olympic hangover for the decline. The top audience: Friday's night's free dance final (810,000), in which Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon won Canada's only medal at the worlds.
AROUND THE DIAL: TSN's coverage of The Masters, which begins Thursday, will include one-hour preview shows before each round. Cory Woron will be the on-site host in Augusta, Ga., alongside analysts Jim Nelford and Bob Weeks ... Reports suggest the NFL Network might hire Bryant Gumbel (brother of CBS' Greg) to handle play-by-play for its new Thursday-Saturday package of late-season games.