Despite dire warnings that the NHL’s 119-day lockout, its third season-altering (or in the instance of 2004-05, season-eliminating) labor showdown since 1994, would turn off a significant segment of hockey fans for good, those of us who have lived New England’s unyielding and sometimes unrequited affection for the Bruins weren’t particularly alarmed.
The Bruins truly are part of the local fabric, and if you find such a statement to be teetering on the edge of cliché, well, you must not have been in the heart of Boston on that perfect day for a parade in June 2011. Hockey matters intensely here even in seasons that come up several pages short of the storybook ending. When the 2010-11 Bruins secured the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 39 years, the first since the golden days of Orr and Espo, it only reinforced the bond.
A lockout? Yeah, that’s tough to forget. But Bruins fans can’t help but forgive. Knowing them is to know they wouldn’t be turned off to hockey. What is a surprise is the extraordinary degree to which they’ve tuned in, right from the first dropped puck of the abbreviated and condensed 48-game season.
Thursday night’s matchup with the Panthers marked the 25th game on the schedule and the 22d televised on NESN, and thus far, through essentially half the season, Nielsen ratings have been nothing short of extraordinary.
The Bruins were averaging a 7.0 household rating in the Boston designated market area on the regional sports network through 21 games, up 49 percent from last season’s 4.7 — which happens to stand as the regular-season record for Bruins telecasts on NESN. The network began airing Bruins games in 1984.
There’s more. The Jan. 19 opener against the Rangers — a 3-1 Boston victory — stands as the highest-rated Bruins game of all time on NESN, earning a massive 9.4 rating. Nine of the 12 highest-rated regular-season Bruins games of all time have occurred this season, and NESN’s lowest-rated game, a 1 p.m. matchup on Monday, Jan. 21 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day) earned a 5.4, which is higher than last season’s average rating.
NHL numbers have also been strong nationally, at least when marquee teams and matchups are involved. NBC got its best-ever rating for a non-Winter Classic game with the Blackhawks’ 2-1 shootout victory over the Red Wings March 3, drawing 1.9 million viewers. (The Blackhawks were unbeaten in regulation at the time.) And the Sunday night Bruins-Canadians matchup March 3 on NBC Sports Network earned 813,000 viewers nationally, the network’s fifth-best NHL audience ever for a game broadcast.
But even with the Bruins’ traditional relevance in mind, the NESN ratings are beyond remarkable. There are other factors that have contributed to the big numbers: the condensed schedule (the Bruins are rarely out of sight or out of mind), a fast start (18-4-3 after Thursday’s win, good for 39 points and fourth place in the Eastern Conference, with games in hand), and, as NESN analyst Andy Brickley suggests, a familiar, appealing roster.
“Management’s decision to bring the whole team back, certainly the core group of this team back, by signing players who were going to be restricted or unrestricted free agents, that was a clear message that their team was going to be right back competing for a Cup again this year,’’ Brickley said. “I think the fans felt exactly the same way, and the fans were as hungry as this team should be this year. So, I thought the fans coming back was an absolute certainty locally.”
It’s a different message than fans received during the last lockout. The Bruins’ roster was gutted after the 2004-05 lockout with the departures of free agents such as Sergei Gonchar, Brian Rolston, Mike Knuble, and Michael Nylander, and the Bruins fell to 13th in the conference.
This time around, core players such as Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, and Brad Marchand were signed to long-term deals by team president Cam Neely and general manager Peter Chiarelli in advance of the labor battle.
Brickley believes the fans’ collective faith in Neely, Chiarelli, and the current management team was solidified with the Cup win two years ago, allowing them some leeway coming out of the lockout.
“The Cup success validated the business plan,’’ Brickley said. “What Cam means to the fan base here in Boston is critical. But you have all the elements covered. You have a strong GM with vision. Peter has that willingness to deal players that they drafted in the first round or high who were in the process of developing or had developed, in order to go and get what they thought they needed to win a Cup, which is strength down the middle, balance, a defense-first, team-first attitude. That’s a long way from where this organization was prior to this management team.
“And I think fans appreciate that, they get it, they have no reason to believe the team isn’t capable of winning again, and that’s why the excitement around this is where it’s at right now, and that drives the numbers.”