With ratings up across the board last season, the networks responsible for bringing the excitement of the National Hockey League into every living room in North America are at it again trying to make a good thing even better.
The national network television schedules were revealed Wednesday, a sign that the upcoming hockey season is quickly approaching. Behind the scenes there's an abundance of excitement and anticipation that has network executives buzzing about what's in store for 2010-11.
For instance, Versus, now in its sixth season as a broadcast partner with the NHL, is gearing up for its most expanded coverage ever. It will broadcast a network record 78 games, including 53 exclusively, and added 30 pre-game Hockey Central broadcasts to its regular-season schedule.
"Coming off a great season with an amazing playoff run, the highest ratings ever in the first two rounds, great Stanley Cup Final ratings and great momentum going into the playoffs, when we were looking at the schedule for the 2010-11 season we said let's maximize our momentum and do everything we can do," Marc Fein, the Executive V.P. of Programming, Production and Business Operations for VERSUS, told NHL.com.
"We said when we got hockey way back when that we are going to be building this thing through the years and we want to be smart about how we get this done and add when the time is right. This year the time is right. We wanted to really be robust."
Versus will open the season with nine games in seven nights, including a tripleheader on Oct. 7 that features Minnesota and Carolina from Finland, the opening of the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, and the defending Stanley Cup champions.
For the first time Versus has the rights to an outdoor game, as it is the U.S. network that will cover the 2011 NHL Heritage Classic from Calgary. Versus will be all over All-Star Weekend in Raleigh, N.C., and has six games in five nights in the last week of the regular season, including one per night.
"A key note is adding 30 pre-game Hockey Central broadcasts; that is a big number," Fein said. "Having that during the regular season just to give the hockey fan what they want is important. And in the playoffs we're going to blow it out with wall-to-wall coverage."
CBC will have 29 Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts as well as coverage of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic from Pittsburgh, All-Star Weekend from Raleigh, and Hockey Day in Canada live from Whitehorse, Yukon, a day that features an all-Canadian tripleheader.
That's all par for the course for the network that has been in the hockey broadcasting business going on 58 seasons now, but what isn't is arguably the highlight of CBC's schedule. The network is particularly excited to bring Canadians its coverage of the Heritage Classic.
The game between the Calgary Flames
and Montreal Canadiens
at McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20 will be the first outdoor NHL game in Canada since the inaugural Heritage Classic in 2003.
"Canadian fans are watching the NHL more than ever before. We have another strong schedule this year with a great balance of all the Canadian teams and the NHL's biggest starts. It should be another fantastic year of NHL hockey."
-- Stewart Johnston, President of TSN
"It's a very good anchor point for our season to let Canadians experience the game how most of them first experienced it, which is outside," CBC Hockey Night in Canada Executive Producer Trevor Pilling told NHL.com. "It's a perfect time of the season for the momentum to really ramp up again and really drive our audiences interest as we make the run toward the playoffs."
CBC has been broadcasting the NHL Winter Classic since it started, but believes the Heritage Classic is something to call its own. Pilling said CBC has innovative plans on how to cover the Heritage Classic, but he can't reveal them as of yet even though he is itching to do so.
"I'm looking forward to when I can disclose our plans fully, but that said, when you have an opportunity like this, which is an opportunity to view the game in a non-traditional venue, then it also gives you a way to approach the game in a non-traditional view," Pilling said. "We are looking forward to giving our audience a different view of the telecast, and I'm looking forward to revealing the details in the not too distant future."
NBC is back for a sixth straight season and once again will be at the forefront of what should be more innovative coverage of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood told NHL.com the network plans to blend the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry, the Penguins-Capitals rivalry and the spectacle of the Winter Classic all into one intense broadcast on New Years' Day.
And because the game has moved back to a football stadium after consecutive years in iconic baseball stadiums, Flood said NBC is working on using technology to take advantage of the setting.
"We have some new ideas, some different locations to figure out where our talent is going to be and how we're going to cover the game based on the spectacle of it," Flood said. "We are figuring out what new TV toys we can bring to that game. There are a lot of options."
NBC will again have its flex scheduling component for the NBC Game of the Week, which starts Jan. 23. Flood said the flexibility in the schedule has allowed the network to broadcast the right games every week. Thirteen days prior to the broadcast NBC will collaborate with the NHL to select the game from a short list of possibilities.
"That's the beauty of how we do hockey," he said. "Remember a few years ago when Crosby got hurt, we were able to defer the Penguins games to later in the season. I thought that was a huge plus to the audience and to us. If there was no option we would have been staying with that game and not as compelling as it would have been if Sidney was in it."
Perhaps just as important, at least from a consistent programming standpoint, is NBC will start every one of its Game of the Week telecasts at 12:30 p.m. ET. That's new this season.
"I think it's very important," Flood said. "People know that the NHL on NBC is available and when it's available. That's how you build and audience when you have consistency in your scheduling."
TSN, a partner with the NHL since 1987, will have 124 games spread between TSN and TSN2, again giving it the most games of any network broadcast partner. TSN will have 76 games on its main network, including 70 that involve at least one Canadian team. TSN2 will have 48 games showcasing non-Canadian teams.
In an e-mail to NHL.com, Stewart Johnston, President of TSN, pointed out 12 different Original Six matchups, Dany Heatley
's "highly anticipated return to Ottawa," and the games leading up to the NHL trade deadline -- "one of our biggest days of the year" -- as highlights to the schedule.
The trade deadline this season falls on Feb. 28 at 3 p.m. ET.
"We are looking to build on our record audiences from last season," Johnston wrote in his e-mail. "Canadian fans are watching the NHL more than ever before. We have another strong schedule this year with a great balance of all the Canadian teams and the NHL's biggest starts. It should be another fantastic year of NHL hockey."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl