Julian Harris Brown would like to thank the NHL's owners and players for giving him his life back. For as long as he can remember, the 40-year-old professional musician has been a hockey nut, watching an average of three games a week during the regular season and easily twice that during the playoffs.
Even now, two months into the NHL lockout, he feels a vestigial urge, a barely resistible momentum on Saturday nights that "when 5:30 rolls around, I have to make dinner, so I can eat and watch the pre-game show," of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada broadcast .
Still, since the league suspended the new season in September, Brown has found he is healthier, more productive – and, frankly, is drinking less beer. The lack of hockey, he says, suddenly "frees you up" – in his case, for about 10 hours a week.
And there seems to be a growing army of Browns who are determined to leverage their new-found freedom into something unexpected.
Over the past two months, an audience the size of Edmonton has stopped watching TV at home on Saturday night. Viewership between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET is down year-over-year about 7.6 per cent, according to the ratings service BBM Canada. That represents a drop of roughly 800,000, to approximately 11.6 million viewers in an average minute.
Other hard evidence of behavioural changes sweeping the nation is hard to come by. In early November, the CEO of Molson-Coors predicted the lack of hockey would directly lead to a drop in the brewer's sales, but he had no proof yet. Last week, Labatt said in a statement only that, while the company was"anticipating an industry decrease," it was "still a bit early to report on the effect the lockout is having on sales."
But the wayward viewers, many of whom used the weekly games as an excuse to gather with friends, are finding community in other places: at the local pub, where they trash-talk each other over picks for their NFL pool rather than the hockey pool; at the sports bars, where the weekend program of choice is now U.S. college football; at the local rink, where hockey dads are spending longer hours with their sons because there's no rush to get home for Coach's Corner.
The change in viewing habits are felt most sharply by the CBC, which last year pulled in more than two million viewers on average for its 7 p.m. (ET) flagship edition of Hockey Night in Canada in October and November, making it the only regularly scheduled Saturday broadcast to land in the top 20 of weekly programs. (The CBC's western game, starting at 7 p.m. (PT), usually pulled between 700,000 and 1.25-million.) Denied fresh NHL games this year, the broadcaster aired old hockey matches for the past two months, which drew only about 10 per cent of its usual Saturday night audience; it is now airing holiday-themed programming in that time slot.
Roughly a million viewers have simply changed the channel: to CTV's weekly marathon of four successive repeat episodes of Big Bang Theory, which goosed the network's ratings about 90 per cent in the time slot; to U.S. stations, which are up about 11 per cent; and to Canadian specialty channels, which are together up 19 per cent.
But many are like Chris Faulds, a digital media sales manager and die-hard Leafs fan from Newmarket, Ont., who is spending more time at the local rink with his two boys. In previous years, he says, NHL games were "always, always, always on – Saturday nights, Tuesday nights, Wednesday nights – doesn't matter. Hockey is pretty much a staple in my household." But with his sons now 7 and 10, "luckily, there's been a lot of minor hockey this year – not just their games but their friends' games. We're spending more time at the arena. We'll just hang out and watch the other kids' games. It's something to fill that void."
Sean Gallagher, who works in advertising in Toronto, said his 10-year-old son used to read the sports pages while being driven to school in the morning. With no games, though, he's started reading other sections of the paper. Lately, he's even found himself interested in reports of young Canadians campaigning for social justice around the globe. "But I don't think it's necessarily going to lead to a better world," Gallagher chuckled.
The musician Brown, who has toured with Feist, Matthew Barber, Torquil Campbell and others, has had an especially fruitful lockout: he spent a recent Saturday evening mixing a new solo album he'd recorded. He's also been catching up on his reading – non-fiction books, mainly – and working his way through box sets of critically acclaimed TV shows such as HBO's riveting Treme and BBC's dark comedy The Thick of It .
Others have moved on more forcefully from hockey, still feeling burned by the season-killing lockout of 2004-05. "I never forgave them for that one, never got over that," said James K., a 36-year-old Ontario civil servant who was too shy to give his last name for publication. The scrapped season broke hockey's spell, which had held him for the first 28 years of his life. So even though he eventually continued organizing his office hockey pool, he was more devoted to a pair of NFL pools he'd started.
When this year's lockout became official, "I just kind of said: 'Fine, I've got other things I can do that are more important to me,'" he said recently. But as he spoke, he began to sound wistful, and acknowledged that it had been many months since he'd last spoken with one old friend who hadn't joined the football pools. The NHL pool, he said, "just gave us something to argue about, something in a day to bring a little excitement."
In an era of 24/7 cable sports, there's always another match somewhere in the world ready to woo wandering fans looking for a diversion. Scott Moore, the president of broadcasting at Rogers Media, whose parent company owns the Toronto Blue Jays as well as a large share of the Toronto Maple Leafs, preferred to look on the bright side. "I think one of the nice consequences is that, obviously with the trade the Blue Jays made, there was gonna be buzz anyway. But with a little less noise in the marketplace, the Jays are getting even more [attention], which is obviously great for us."
Even one division of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., the company that owns the Leafs, is encouraging the consumption of other sports. "Our business is down marginally," acknowledged Rajani Kamath, a spokesperson Real Sports Bar & Grill, the mammoth MLSE-owned beer-and-TV man cave on the northern rim of the Leafs' Air Canada Centre.
But the bar, she says, is proudly "sports agnostic," and therefore happy to feature whatever happens to be on TV on a Saturday night. "College football is huge," she said cheerily.