NHL leading the cheers for Crosby and Penguins

ERIN NICKS

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

I'm liable to snicker and roll my eyes about a lot of things in this business, but do you want to know what really sets me off? Any claim of being totally impartial towards an NHL franchise.

Apparently these people were never children, choosing teams to love and despise based on parental preference, franchise colours or plain gut instinct.

When you're a media member, you're not supposed to show preference towards a specific franchise. It's not "professional." Whether you believe that isn't the issue. Everyone is prone to favouritism -- there isn't a single person on Earth that cherishes all 30 NHL teams, and is simply a "fan of the sport."

However, these biases aren't reserved solely for the media. They extend far beyond, into the NHL itself. But how could the league have team preferences?

Two words -- Television ratings.

The NHL will soon be entering its broadcasting high season -- the playoffs. And while the league likely appreciates its perpetual support from Canadian viewers (although numbers inevitably slip if any of the nation's contenders are weeded out), the American viewing public holds precedence.

Unfortunately for the league, Americans rarely have been found in front of a television, watching a hockey game.

We've all read the stories and heard the punchlines: The NHL could display a three-period Stanley Cup-final spectacular, with a 25-goal total score, two bench-clearing brawls, non-evasive officiating and a lascivious Ice Girl tryout during a random glass and netting repair. The following day, we would still read about said game receiving a 0.2 share in the U.S., and being beaten in the ratings by a rerun of The Golden Girls.

But the league doesn't simply assume that '80s sitcoms are turning playoff hockey into an American niche sport. If you peer inside the NHL, you can surmise that in its not-so-private opinion, U.S interest is largely affected by the matchups themselves, and the size of the market each team could potentially bring to the table.

Pittsburgh, for example, has seen a significant resurgence in their television ratings for Penguins' broadcasts -- the best since 2001. Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in mid-February that the Penguins' ratings are around the 4.5 level, according to industry sources. This would place Pittsburgh at the highest level of NHL ratings, alongside teams like the Red Wings and the Sabres.

Naturally, the league is also aware of the major draw that Pittsburgh's upcoming post-season presents to the rest of its U.S. audience. After all, they've made Sidney Crosby the face of the NHL. There's just one problem.

Pittsburgh appears on a crash course to tangle with Ottawa in April -- the same Ottawa that's known as a small-market team in Canada, and becomes virtually irrelevant the very second you cross the border.

Sure, the league will likely grit its teeth and smile, feigning happiness over the idea of its beloved phenom matching up against a Canadian team. It won't make it public, but it will be pulling for Pittsburgh. In fact, the league has surely been rooting for them for some time.

REVERED MARKET

Think about it: If Pittsburgh knocks New Jersey out of first place in the Atlantic Division, they'll be in second place overall in the Eastern Conference. And who's been flirting with the No. 7 seed for some time?

The New York Rangers -- one of the league's most revered markets. New York is undoubtedly the NHL's preferred opponent for Crosby and Co., if it is to have any chance of attaining those elusive U.S. ratings of significance.

The NHL can pretend to be happy for all 16 teams that are fortunate to continue their season into the playoffs -- they'll place a spin on every matchup, presenting it as the most intriguing post-season ever. But to assume that the league demonstrates even a flicker of ambivalence when the matchups are created is simply naive. The NHL won't lack partiality, not when dollars and dignity are at stake.

Make no mistake: The league wants Ottawa in the playoffs. But when it comes to avoiding a ratings embarrassment, it'd rather see the Senators on the outside of any matchup involving the Penguins. They'll deny it, but that's their likely preference.


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