Anyone but the Canadiens.
Those four words amount to something between a desperate plea and a mission statement around here any time the Bruins’ chief rivals and historical antagonists play on beyond the end of hockey season in Boston.
It certainly was the sentiment of the vast majority of Bruins fans who watched the Eastern Conference finals on NBC and NBC Sports Network. In fact, it became an exercise in rooting for the lesser of two rivals. The Canadiens — who sent the Bruins to the golf courses with a seven-game second-round victory — saw their season end in six against the New York Rangers.
There cannot be more than a hat trick’s worth of times in our city’s sports history that Boston fans were pleased to see a New York team advance to a championship round. This was one. There’s some solace and a hint of schadenfreude to be found in the defeat of the team that just defeated your team — especially when it’s Montreal.
What’s fascinating is that the “anyone but the Canadiens” mantra doesn’t apply to just Bruins fans watching the games, but to the network broadcasting the games. NBC Sports Network executives would never admit it out of respect for the franchise’s place in NHL lore, but having the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final would have been an outright disaster for the network’s thus-far outstanding postseason ratings.
How can that be? Simple. The games on NBC and NBC Sports Network aren’t available in Canada. They air on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) and French-language RDS (Réseau des Sports). And Nielsen does not measure Canadian markets. So there are exactly zero viewers in Canada for NBC Sports’s live game coverage.
That means the choice in the Eastern Conference finals was between New York — the largest designated market in the United States by Nielsen’s measure, with an estimated 7,461,030 television homes and 6.44 percent of the entire market in the country — or Montreal, with zero viewers. For NBC Sports, that’s no choice at all.
To come at it from another angle, the top two markets for any televised sporting event are typically the markets for the teams competing. For Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final last year between the Bruins and Blackhawks, 664,000 households in Boston tuned in, topped only by Chicago’s 874,000. Had Montreal represented the Eastern Conference last year rather than Boston, NBC would have lost 664,000 households.
So the preference between New York and Montreal really was an all-or-nothing proposition for NBC. Across the country, there was a more complicated reality. In the epic Western Conference showdown between the Kings and Blackhawks, there were two extremely appealing teams and markets, as evidenced by the staggering viewership for Game 7 Sunday night on NBC Sports Network.
The Kings’ overtime victory drew 4.137 million viewers, making it the most-watched non-Stanley Cup Final NHL playoff game on record and NBCSN’s most-watched NHL broadcast ever. Some heady company for context: Among viewers in the 18-49 and 25-54 demographics, it trailed only HBO’s powerhouse “Game of Thrones” among the most-watched programs on television.
The ratings overall for the Stanley Cup playoffs through three rounds have been outstanding. NBC, NBCSN, and CNBC have combined to average 1.187 million viewers through 86 games, up 11 percent over last year and the most in 17 years. In 1997, Fox, ESPN, and ESPN2 combined to average 1.237 million through three rounds.
Sam Flood, the executive producer of NBC’s NHL coverage, said before Game 1 that he isn’t about to put an expectation on what the final Cup ratings will be.
“Every rating is about how long a series goes, so we’re rooting for the opposite team to win each game so we go 1-1, 2-2, 3-3 and then let the best team win Game 7,’’ he said. “And then we can talk about the ratings at that point.”
So far, pretty good. The Kings’ victory in Game 1 Wednesday earned a 3.8 household rating nationwide, the second-best ever for a Stanley Cup Final opener on NBC. But there’s a catch: It was down approximately 21 percent from Game 1 last year, the Blackhawks’ triple-overtime victory over the Bruins (4.8).
That gap illustrates why having the top two television markets actually is not the best-case scenario for NBC and NBCSN. Chicago, the nation’s third-largest market (an estimated 3,534,080 TV homes, roughly 2 million fewer than Los Angeles), is hockey-mad compared with LA, as evidenced by its humongous 22.7 rating for Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to LA’s 4.8. It also does not help that the games begin at 5 p.m. in Los Angeles rather than in prime time.
But that’s a small gripe for NBC, if it’s a gripe at all.
“I think Chicago is well-established as a great hockey market for television,’’ said Flood. “And I think LA is a growing market and I think it’s exciting they have this opportunity to have this matchup and we can watch hockey grow on the West Coast.
“So in a lot of ways, this is great for the NHL to get LA back in the final so quickly and playing against New York where there’s some built-in distaste between the two cities. Each city thinks they’re the greatest on earth.”
Of course, such regional pride applies to Boston, too. And Chicago and Montreal, for that matter. But when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs and NBC Sports, it’s only the US cities that rate at all, let alone as the greatest.Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.