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Can the NHL step into America's NBA void?

If there's a weather vane in American sports culture, it's probably ESPN's Bill Simmons, the man behind the Grantland website and ESPN's excellent 30/30 documentary series. According to The Sports Guy, the NHL has an unprecedented opportunity to crack public consciousness in America while the NBA locks out its players.

In case your taste doesn't run toward labour-law seminars, the NBA is doing its own grim parody of the NHL's 2004-05 lockout, complete with drop-dead dates, marathon bargaining sessions and heated rhetoric about guys with billions disrespecting guys with millions. This week's Yalta Conference ended (duh!) in an ashen-faced commissioner David Stern cancelling all games till the end of November. Like someone is counting.

Stern knows that, until Christmas, the TV networks ignore the NBA anyway. So why have a cow about a few weeks of cancelled games when you can take out the work force and smack them in the woodshed? Hockey fans are here permitted to shake their heads ruefully about buying all this commedia dell'arte seven years ago. (For anyone who doesn't think the NHL's precedent of breaking the players' union isn't affecting this dispute, we have some Nevada mortgages for you.)

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But NBA fans who don't have the NHL on their radar – and thus missed this prequel – are mad as hell and not going to take it any more. Among them is Simmons, a Boston native and Bruins fan living in Los Angeles. Simmons has broken down to buy Los Angeles Kings season tickets to compete with his long-standing Los Angeles Clippers' season ducats.

From there, says Simmons, it will be a Darwinian struggle. "Next June, I will be eliminating one of them in the dramatic season finale of Things I Probably Shouldn't Have Bought Anyway. The Kings have either seven, eight or nine months to win me over. And right now, their odds are better than I thought."

Simmons goes on to extol the sport. "I mean, what's not to love? It's a sport with the best in-game format (long period, long break, long period, long break, long period, go home), best regular-season in-game wrinkle (the shootout), best secretly awesome moment (any fight), highest percentage of most likable players (hands down), and highest percentage of true fans in attendance of the four major sports (indisputable). They fixed many of the sport's problems, made it better, and now we're here."

So we are. Can the NHL take advantage of having the stage to themselves? If the NBA regains its mind and resumes by the new year, the NHL will see minimal gains. But if it stretches past the holidays, allowing the HBO 24/7 series and the Winter Classic to run unopposed, there could be real opportunity for the NHL in the U.S. of A. As Simmons notes, hockey players are the most accessible sports stars out there. All it would take is for the New York Rangers to get on a roll and … nah, isn't happening.

Series-ous ratings

After the once-in-a-generation Game 6 in the World Series, Fox's Game 7 doubled the ratings number from earlier in the Texas Rangers-St. Louis Cardinals series, scoring 25.4 million homes in the United States. That's up 16 per cent from the Series last year. It also ranks as the highest rated and most viewed major-league baseball telecast since 2004. And it took Game 7 of the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins Stanley Cup final to the cleaners, too. Game 7 scored 4.8 million on NBC.

Having said that, Game 7 also is the lowest rated and least viewed Game 7 of the World Series. According to Nielsen, Game 7 was the 16th-most-viewed sports telecast of the past 10 years, excluding the NFL and the Olympic Games. Part of that can be blamed on Friday night, a traditionally weak night for TV viewing. Canadian numbers should be available this week.

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