With the release of the 2017-18 NHL-NBC schedule, both for the main network and the subsidiary NBCSN, there were few surprises. It is clear that the NHL’s higher-ups know who they can rely on to keep viewership high.
Traditional markets like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Detroit have a lion’s share of the nationally televised games, with smaller markets plugging the rest of the docket. People like watching those teams, so the NHL is happy to give people what they want.
But that pragmatism in the NHL-NBC schedule is also where its one major problem lies. The spread is too safe.
When you look at the games being offered to the national audience on NBC, there’s nothing really unexpected or novel about the teams in play. Arguably the smallest-market team to receive full national coverage will be the Buffalo Sabres during the Winter Classic. The only Canadian team to see a widely nationally televised game in the U.S. will be Toronto on March 3, when the Maple Leafs visit the Capitals in Annapolis for the Stadium Series.
Moreover, the popular Wednesday Night Rivalry series on NBCSN will again showcase a majority of the Eastern Conference teams. There is decidedly less collective exposure in it for the West, as there will 24 Wednesday Night Rivalry showcases, but only five will be followed by a nightcap.
A total of seven teams will appear on the nine matinees to be televised on NBC’s main network. Of those seven, the Blackhawks will be the only Western Conference tenant, and they will be shown only once.
This may not seem like a major issue at first, but it shows that the NHL is still struggling to market the sport outside of a few major faces and franchises. It won’t come as a shock to anyone to find out that Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, the New York Rangers and Boston are all widely recognized franchises that will draw a reasonable crowd.
But if there was ever a year to showcase a smaller market franchise on a national scale, 2017-18 was going to be it. With the run the Nashville Predators made to the Stanley Cup Finals, the NHL had a prime opportunity to spotlight the team and city with one of its Sunday night games on NBC.
Nashville is a success story, and people like seeing and hearing about franchises that struggled to find a place before rooting themselves in a community the way the Predators did. Even if this would mean the game had to start at an awkward time in the night, it would be worth it to show off this exciting new hockey town again before the next playoffs.
Besides this, it is dumbfounding to not see the Edmonton Oilers make a game on NBC. Connor McDavid is going to be a huge part of the NHL talk for the next decade-plus. He is already on the cover of the NHL 18 video game, no surprise as he is defending the league scoring title, the Ted Lindsay Award and the Hart Trophy.
Yet, with the exception of opposing regional networks and three Tuesday night game on NBCSN, he won’t be shown in the States. Yes, there may be scheduling conflicts between time zones, but there is no reason for one of the NHL’s brightest stars to remain hidden from nationally televised games in the U.S.
Can you imagine Wayne Gretzky getting the same treatment if his formative years in Edmonton occurred in this media age?
With all of this said, there is a decent variety for the national audience on NBCSN. Besides the regular rivalry games and Sunday night telecasts, the NHL has done a good job giving every team some primetime coverage. While this coverage may not always be equal, it still is good for the sport to have some of the smaller market teams to get national coverage five or six times a year.
It will be especially interesting to see how the Vegas Golden Knights’ national viewership fares in their first year as well. Especially on their first home game on Oct. 10, there will be a buzz not just around Las Vegas, but also around the general hockey viewership.
That first home game is likely to draw more eyes than a typical East Coast nightcap would, and it could be an important introduction for the team. For some casual hockey fans, seeing Vegas in the spotlight might be enough for them to pick the Golden Knights up as their second team to route for.
While there is no way to perfect a national broadcasting schedule, the NHL does do a good job with what it is given. Unlike the NFL, where everything is condensed into one or two days, the NHL has to try and make an interesting product for as many as four or five days a week.
Even if the sports tends to fall back on the most popular teams to help with ratings, seeing the schedule is still enough to make a hockey-starved fan excited. All it needs is more Western seasoning and Canadian dressing to suit every taste.