Exciting Cup fails to overflow in TV ratings

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

RALEIGH, N.C. -- There was more scoring, plenty of intriguing story lines and hardly anyone watching at home in the U.S.

The first Stanley Cup finals of the post-lockout era showcased all the positive steps taken by the NHL to get over its debilitating labor dispute -- but also highlighted the daunting challenge of persuading anyone beyond the hard-core fans to notice.

Two small-market teams, Carolina and Edmonton, were the last ones standing. Score one for the salary cap.

The Hurricanes won their first Stanley Cup title in a thrilling seven-game series that featured a penalty shot goal and a short-handed goal in overtime, two firsts for the finals. Score one for the clampdown on hooking, grabbing and all the other thuggish tactics that dumbed the game down.

In a sign of more wide-open play and increased power-play chances, Carolina combined with the Oilers for 35 goals in all, up more than a goal a game over the last championship series in 2004 and tied for the second highest-scoring finals (based on per-game average) in the last decade.

"We really had to earn that one," Carolina's Ray Whitney said after the down-to-the-wire finale, which wasn't decided until Justin Williams' empty-net goal with just over a minute remaining. "It was relentless."

Dip in ratings

Still, the NHL continued to fight a losing battle in its bid to be viewed as more than a fringe sport based on that most valued of numbers -- American TV ratings.

Game 7 on Monday night had a 3.3 rating and 6 share on NBC, down from ABC's 4.2/7 for Game 7 in 2004 -- the last season before the lockout.

"The ratings are in line with our projections," Brian Walker, director of communications for NBC Sports, said Tuesday. "We were thrilled with the product on the ice. The rule changes had a huge impact. The hockey this season was fantastic."

NBC aired the final five games of the finals, averaging a 2.3 rating and 4 share, down from a 2.6/5 on ABC in 2004. NBC averaged 3.6 million viewers, down from ABC's 3.9 million in 2004.

A ratings point represents 1,096,000 households, or 1 percent of the nation's estimated 109.6 million TV homes. The share is the percentage of in-use televisions tuned to a given show.

In the ultimate slap, the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City didn't even show the penultimate game of the Stanley Cup finals, going with a tape-delayed telecast of a Major League Soccer contest.

Those who did tune in to hockey saw a highly entertaining series. Give credit to the Oilers, the first eighth-seeded team to make the finals under the current format, for fighting back after losing the first two games and three of the first four. They even managed to do it with without starting goalie Dwayne Roloson, who had played every minute of the playoffs for Edmonton until he went down with a knee injury in Game 1.

Jussi Markkanen, a third-stringer who had not played in more than three months, took over in the nets and did a remarkable job after getting blown out 5-0 in Game 2. The gritty Oilers, lacking star power beyond defenseman Chris Pronger, managed to keep up with a Carolina team that had 11 more wins and 17 more points during the regular season.

In the end, the Hurricanes brought the Stanley Cup to Tobacco Road, gaining a foothold in a territory best known for college basketball and NASCAR racing.

Ex-Blues lift the Cup

It was a stirring triumph for 30-something players such as Whitney, Rod Brind'Amour, Glen Wesley, Doug Weight and Bret Hedican -- all of whom got their name on the hockey's most treasured prize for the first time.

Brind'Amour, the team's captain and rough-and-tumble leader, had tears streaming down his face after he hoisted the cup.

"I just kept thinking there is no way we can let this go," the 35-year-old center said. "There's too many guys that deserve this."

The Hurricanes overcame a loss of their own. Weight went down in Game 5 with an injured right shoulder and didn't play again, but he put on his uniform and returned to the ice for the celebration Monday night.

No way he was missing a chance to hold the cup, even though Weight couldn't quite lift it as high with his right hand as he did with his left. Whatever he lacked in style points, he made up for in pure joy.

While the old guys reveled in their first championship, they all knew it wouldn't have been possible without the kid in the nets.

Twenty-two-year-old rookie Cam Ward took over in Carolina's opening-round series against Montreal when starter Martin Gerber struggled. The youngster wound up winning more games in the postseason (15) than he did during the regular season (14) to claim the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the playoffs.

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