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NBC hoping viewers tune back in to NHL

Sam Flood’s hockey bona fides have proven legitimate many times over. The 1983 Williams College captain, now the executive producer for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, has been a driving force behind the NHL’s Winter Classic’s ascent to an anticipated event on the sports calendar (at least during seasons not condensed by a labor battle).

He is almost matter-of-fact in acknowledging his lifelong passion for the game, and that passion is a common thread among NBC’s lead broadcast team, which includes unparalleled play-by-play voice Mike “Doc” Emrick and analysts Ed Olczyk and Pierre McGuire.

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“We’re so excited to get back to doing the sport we love so much,’’ said Flood in advance of NBC’s lockout-delayed debut telecast Saturday, which begins with the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings’ banner-raising ceremony at 3 p.m. before giving way in the Boston market to a Penguins-Flyers matchup. “This group are a bunch of total hockey fans. It’s this group’s life, and we’ve been frustrated that we haven’t been able to do what we love.”

Flood’s credibility comes with candor. While NBC and NBC Sports Network, which will air 70 regular-season games between them, dive headlong into the compressed 48-game season (NBC will also have Flyers-Sabres at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, and NBCSN’s coverage will premiere that night with Blackhawks-Coyotes at 10), Flood recognizes that it may take aggrieved fans longer to return from the 113-day lockout, the league’s third since 1994-95.

“We’ll see how the audience responds, and see how, with the pent-up demand for hockey, they come back,’’ he said. “We can’t control that right now. All we can do is cover the games the best we can, and hope the passion for hockey bubbles back to the surface very quickly.

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“As we both know, the hockey fan is a passionate group, and we’re cautiously optimistic they will come back. It won’t be instant. You’ve got to regain the trust. But I think we’ve got some good games out there and I love the way we’re launching the season.”

Good games and tense rivalries are of course essential for winning back fans, and the NBC Sports Group is acknowledging as much with such programming as “Rivalry Wednesdays’’ on NBCSN, which will begin with the second meeting of the season between the Bruins and Rangers, who added star power to a deep roster with the acquisition of high-scoring Rick Nash from Columbus. The puck drops on that game at 7:30 Wednesday.

But first the Bruins and Rangers meet in the season opener Saturday at 7 p.m. on NESN, the first of the network’s 41 regionally exclusive Bruins broadcasts. The welcome voices of Jack Edwards and Andy Brickley are back from lockout limbo for the call, while the excellent Dave Goucher and Bob Beers will do the honors on 98.5 The Sports Hub.

It’s not just about appealing matchups at the beginning of the season; Flood already has high hopes for the end. When a reporter noted that the NHL’s recovery from the 2004-05 lockout was bolstered by some particularly appealing story lines in the postseason the next few years, Flood acknowledged that the NBC Sports Group is already crossing its fingers for compelling large-market matchups in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“The longer the series, the better,’’ he said. “We knew going into this that an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final would be different than a Boston Bruins-Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Final. That’s just the basics of market size.

“Your local markets help drive the sport. A Super Bowl with two big-market teams might have a tiny benefit over a Super Bowl with two small-market teams. But in hockey, the impact is much greater.’’

Emrick, who kept his pipes sharp during the lockout by calling college hockey, figure skating, and even a girls’ 12-and-under game in Troy, Mich., suggests the early matchups will be crucial.

“The sense of urgency right off is to win games, because, in a 48-game season, if you lose three or only get a point out of your first six possible, that’s the equivalent of getting 2 points out of the first 12,’’ he said. “It’s almost double.’’

The Bruins, who had an NHL-high 12 players playing in Europe during the lockout, should be in better shape than most teams, Olczyk said. He believes their timing and conditioning will be an early advantage.

“Yes, this is the second time they have a 48-game schedule, but this is the first time where we are coming out of a work stoppage, practicing for five days and going and playing. Back in 1994-95, let’s not forget that NHL teams had a training camp for 3½ weeks and nine or 10 exhibition games after the lockout,’’ said Olczyk, who played for the Rangers and Winnipeg Jets that season.

“That, to me, is the unknown for what’s ahead that will make for dramatic hockey each and every game. That’s going to make this 48-game schedule totally unique, and hopefully we never see it again, but it’s going to be terrific hockey.”

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.
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