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Scott D. Pierce: NBC hopes hockey begets big ratings

Published April 15, 2014 12:03 pm

The animosity level in Stanley Cup playoffs is high. Will more people tune in as a result?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There's a lot of NHL teams that hate each other, and NBC is hoping to ride that hatred to the ratings bank.

"I would say the hockey gods are smiling on us right now," said Sam Flood, the executive producer of NBC's hockey playoffs, who called this year's NHL postseason "one of the most special playoffs we've been through, just because of the new format."

The new Stanley Cup playoffs format is actually an old Stanley Cup playoffs format. It's a return to pre-expansion-style divisional matchups in the first two rounds (with the exception of wild cards crossing over).

"We think it's going to add a whole degree of hatred on ice as you're going to have rivalry games up and down the brackets, which we have found adds a whole 'nother dimension to the game of hockey," Flood said.

And hatred is good. It fuels the teams. It fuels the fans. It fuels television ratings. Or at least NBC is hoping it fuels television ratings. For the third season in a row, NBC will air all the playoff games on the NBC broadcast network (Channel 5 in Utah), the NBC Sports Network, CNBC and the NHL Network. And NBC's on-air team is touting this as potentially the greatest hockey playoffs in decades.

Yes, that's part of their job. NBC has a reason to want people to think they'll be missing something if they don't tune in.

But they do make a case.

Analyst Pierre McGuire pointed to the balance in the league heading into the playoffs. The matchups. "The teams that have made great surges to make the playoffs." The "resurgent" Colorado Avalanche. The first-round series between rivals like Boston and Detroit, New York and Philadelphia, and even Columbus and Pittsburgh.

"You look at how St. Louis has stumbled into the playoffs and the huge hatred, animosity level between St. Louis and Chicago," McGuire said.

Whether you call it hatred or animosity, it's a recurring theme. There's almost a certain glee in the voices of the NBC team as they talk about the impending playoffs, which begin Wednesday. Not that that's a bad thing.

There's particular anticipation, it seems, for the Rangers-Flyers series, with NBC building it up to something akin to a subway series. The two teams' home arenas are only about 100 miles apart.

"These two teams know each other well and have a nice train ride between the two buildings, which makes it convenient for them to get back and forth," Flood said. "I see it as one of the great rivalries that just gets nastier and nastier. And they're two teams that both have something to prove."

As if all that nastiness isn't a big enough gift to NBC, there's also only one Canadian team among the 16 in the playoffs, which is good news for the company telecasting the games in the United States. And Flood even argued that he got the best of all possible Canadian teams for American TV.

"We love the Montreal Canadiens. We consider them the Green Bay Packers of hockey, because they're in a small market but people know who they are," he said. "So it's fun to have them in the mix."

But all the hate is even more fun. NBC is even selling the NHL as something akin to "Survivor."

"There is no better reality TV in the world than watching the road to the Stanley Cup Final," said analyst Eddie Olczyk.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.