Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2007, 12:00am

It's an annual rite of panic for many Canadians in Hong Kong. They look at the calendar, see May turning to June and realise, damn, it's Stanley Cup final time. Sadly, what should be a high point in their life has become a mortal blow to their pride and a pretty painful kick in the southern extremities for many Canadians because the championship of the National Hockey League (NHL) is now down to two teams competing for the iconic cup and nobody around here seems to care whatsoever.

But if it's any consolation, it's not just Hong Kong where nobody cares about Canada's national heirloom. Even in some of the locales that have won Lord Stanley's Cup recently, hockey is a notch below pillow fighting on the sports scene. If nothing else, the plight of the devalued NHL should serve as a cautionary tale to one and all: sell your soul at your own peril.

The NHL did just that and hockey's insignificance has been on display for all to not see in the past few weeks. The finals between the Ottawa Senators and the Anaheim Ducks are such poor TV fare in the US, including the greater Anaheim area, that only the most intrepid viewers can find them. In Canada, where six of the 30 teams in the NHL play, the Stanley Cup is the blockbuster bonanza of the TV programming season.

In a pathetic and shameless bid to get the league on more American TV screens, the NHL agreed to schedule play-off games on Saturday afternoon if NBC, one of the big US networks, would please just show a few. So NBC, which paid next to nothing for the games, rescheduled a couple of tractor pulls and monster truck galas for a much, much later spot and managed to squeeze the NHL showpiece in.

A pivotal conference final game between the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators was moved from Saturday night to Saturday afternoon. But there was only one problem. In Canada, the most popular show on TV is called Hockey Night in Canada, not Hockey Afternoon in Canada.

This meant little to the NHL, though, which merely shrugged and intimated that Canadians could close the curtains and pretend it was dark outside if they wanted to enjoy the game like they usually do.

The game in question turned out to be a stellar affair that was tied after regulation and heading to a tension packed sudden-death overtime. Ah, but NBC had other priorities. Without warning, the network switched to a pre-race show on the Preakness before the puck was dropped in overtime. Hockey Afternoon in Canada stayed with the game, naturally, but fans in Buffalo and the rest of the US, who spent three hours watching, missed Ottawa win in overtime.

In their zeal to establish themselves as a major player in the lucrative US market, the NHL hired a New York lawyer in 1993 who had spent the previous 12 years working under David Stern at the NBA. Gary Bettman's brief was to grow the game and he did just that as the league went from 21 to 30 franchises under his watch.

Teams showed up in unlikely places like Arizona, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Texas. Unless the club were playing really well, support in those non-hockey markets was feeble at best.

Fans in traditional hockey markets felt deserted by a commissioner who paid little heed to the history of the game in his lust for untapped and unconventional markets.

Ironically, the last two Stanley Cup winners hail from Raleigh, North Carolina, and Tampa Bay, Florida. Although neither region boasts anything close to an indigenous hockey culture, they disposed of teams from Calgary and Edmonton in the finals. This year it looks like a team from Anaheim, which is more of a parking lot in southern California than a true city, look like they will beat a team representing the capital of Canada. A Canadian team have not won the Stanley Cup since 1993, yet the game has never been more insignificant in the US than it is right now.

Most of you probably want to know what does any of this have to do with Manchester United or Liverpool? Actually, more than you think. The same network that will soon be showing your beloved English Premier League, is now also showing the NHL and the Stanley Cup finals, as well as a full slate of games in the upcoming 2007-08 season. They haven't said much about it publicly because, according to NOW TV, ice hockey is not considered one of their premium sports so they don't do any promotions for it.

I mention this because a few years back, the good folks from Hong Kong Cable TV put together an NHL package that cost in excess of HK$1,000 but was welcomed nonetheless. We should probably thank commissioner Bettman for making the game so insignificant that the broadcast rights have become so cheap that NOW will be showing the NHL at no additional cost to viewers and merely as complimentary content.

Of course, I'm certain if a situation arises and a play-off game goes into overtime it might well get yanked before it ends so we can see a replay of Fulham and Middlesborough that is five days old. But hey, it happens everywhere but in Canada these days so we're used to it.