The broadcasters couldn't have written the script better themselves.
After losing millions of dollars in advertising through the NHL lockout, the CBC and TSN expect to jack up their ad rates as an unexpectedly high number of Canadian and Original Six teams compete for the Stanley Cup.
With the regular season winding down, five Canadian teams could find themselves in the postseason. More importantly for the broadcasters, there is a good chance the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs could meet for the first time since 1979, which could drive ratings into the stratosphere as two of the league's most historic and closely followed teams compete and at least one makes it to the second round.
"Without question this is shaping up to be a dream for the rights holders," said Gord Hendren, president of consulting firm Charlton Strategic Research, whose clients include several of the NHL's largest advertisers. "Does this replace the lost revenue from the first part of the season? No. But it certainly helps."
There was concern when the abbreviated season started in January that viewers would shun the sport to punish the owners and players for putting their interests ahead of the fans'. That didn't happen. Viewership has held steady, and Hendren said the shortened season seems to have intensified fan interest because each game has playoff implications.
His company's research has found fans resent the league for the half-season lockout, but their anger hasn't extended as deeply to individual teams.
"There is still high local interest and excitement," he said. "And that will likely mean higher ratings."
The two broadcasters share the rights to the NHL playoffs, although CBC gets first choice of which series to show in each round, and owns exclusive rights to the final. It'll be tough to make those decisions this year; the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets are all on the cusp while the Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks have already locked down their playoff spots.
Broadcasters often sell their inventory in advance rather than risk selling space at the last minute for a series involving teams that nobody wants to watch. CBC was burned by the approach two years ago when it was left without a lot of extra inventory to sell at increased rates as the Canucks made it to the final and drove ratings to record highs.
But this year, the broadcasters are leaving slots in their schedules for last-minute ad buys to take advantage of the increased viewership that comes when Canadian and Original Six teams run deep into the playoffs. Last year, only the Senators and Canucks made the playoffs, and both were wiped out in the first round.
The last time more than two Canadian teams were in the playoffs at the same time was 2009-2010 with Montreal, Vancouver and the Calgary Flames qualifying. The last time every Canadian team made it in was 1986, when there were fewer teams in the league.
"Depending on matchups, we may charge some differentiated rates due to higher than expected audience delivery," said Alan Dark, general manager of CBC's revenue group.
The drawing power of some matchups was made clear last year on TSN. Its first-round series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins drew an average 1.2 million viewers. Its other series featuring the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks drew closer to 450,000.
The final was also a bit of a flop. The Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils drew 2.6 million viewers a game (close to double the average Hockey Night in Canada regular-season broadcast) in their six-game series, but Vancouver and the Boston Bruins drew closer to six million the year before.
"The more Canadian teams, the more interest, and that's good for everyone," said Shawn Redmond, vice-president of programming at TSN. "It's good for us in particular, though, because it drives viewership across all of our sports programming. An important part of our strategy is to own the conversations that happen around the playoffs."
The CBC's hold on television rights – which includes all Canadian games played on a Saturday as well preferential treatment through the Stanley Cup final – ends at the conclusion of next season as its deal with the league expires and other networks are able to bid.