Who's CBC's team?

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:20 AM ET

The big hitter has struck out, and they're braced for the major audience hit.

But that might only be the half of it for the CBC.

For the first time in eight years, Hockey Night in Canada is staring at a Toronto Maple Leafs-less Stanley Cup playoffs. And loads of eyeballs with a good reason not to tune in.

Compounding it even further: As of yesterday morning, the team from Canada's second-largest English-speaking market -- the Vancouver Canucks -- was also on the outside looking in.

"Obviously, they're the two biggest markets in this country and (their popularity) is evident by the numbers this year," said Joel Darling, Hockey Night's executive producer. "The Battle of Alberta has heated up again this year, but we didn't even get over 900,000 last Saturday (for a Flames-Oilers matchup).

"(Losing the Leafs and Canucks) will mean less viewers for us in the first round. There's no other away to put it."

Perhaps 500,000 a game on average, it says here. And that's just if the Leafs aren't around. But Darling also sees it as an opportunity for other Canadian teams to gain more of a national following.

"Toronto's audience is the biggest (of the Canadian teams). They've got the history of being the team from coast to coast," he said. "But now that interest will go to teams like Montreal and Ottawa.

"They can develop new viewers and new fans because of this."

What's also intriguing is this: It's possible that the CBC could end up with two all-Canadian series in the first round (Ottawa-Montreal and Calgary-Edmonton or Calgary-Vancouver).

From the CBC's point of view, that's win-win all the way around. Two matchups with the potential to captivate a lot of fans across the country, and two guaranteed Canadian teams in the second round.

That just might be the key to the CBC avoiding a complete audience meltdown. No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993, and the prospect of that drought ending just might be the thing to keep fans in the Great White North interested.

The Flames proved that two years ago. Some 3.74 million Canadians -- the largest audience for a Stanley Cup final game in a decade -- tuned in to Game 7 between Calgary and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"When it comes down to only one Canadian team, they're not only playing for their fans, they're playing for the whole country," said Darling.

CANADA'S TEAM

"That's where the term Canada's Team comes into play."

In 2006, it could be the Senators.

Or the Montreal Canadiens.

Or the Flames again.

In those markets, playoff fever is just beginning to build. Hockey Night is counting on that malady spreading, one year after Canadians endured a spring without the NHL playoffs.

"Nobody has seen playoff hockey in two years," said Darling. "Our (regular-season audience) numbers have been up this season and I think it will carry over into the playoffs.

"To what degree, I don't know."

Not as much as they hope.

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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