Already dealing with minuscule American cable television ratings through two games of the championship series between the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators, the NHL anticipated a small turnout of American-based reporters and took action to try to maximize coverage.
Of the 21 U.S. markets that have NHL teams, only nine were represented for any of the first three games. That includes local coverage in the Los Angeles area. The Daily News of New York covered the entire series, while The New York Times sent a reporter only to the opener.
“It’s sad,” Tampa Bay forward Vincent Lecavalier said Saturday before Game 3. “If people are not watching it they are really missing out. It’s a great series and they definitely should cover it. It’s exciting and it’s the Stanley Cup.”
News conferences before the series opener were made available by telephone – the next best thing to being there.
“We did take advantage … for staff-written stories about Ottawa carrying the Canadian flag and a more general preview,” said Ray Stein, sports editor of The Columbus Dispatch, absent from the past two finals. “As much as I hate to jinx myself, I have yet to receive one reader complaint about it.”
The league also provided remote availability for commissioner Gary Bettman’s state of the NHL address before Game 1, set up phone access to the top prospects in this year’s draft and did another conference call Saturday with statistical award winners Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh (scoring champion), Lecavalier (goal leader) and Minnesota goalies Manny Fernandez and Niklas Backstrom (fewest goals allowed by team).
The NHL’s public relations staff also has been e-mailing transcribed quotes from various interview sessions before and after games as well as on off days.
All six Canadian markets were represented.
“I wish everybody were here because watching our game in person, particularly the final, there’s nothing like it in sports,” Bettman said.
While extra availability off site is good, the argument can be made that such action provides less reason to show up.
“I think it’s always wise for a league to make access easy,” said Joe Sullivan, sports editor of The Boston Globe, which sent reporters to Anaheim and Ottawa. “It can only help, not hurt.”
“We feel it’s an event our readership is interested in and appreciates the Globe writers viewpoint,” he added.
But that is the exception.
Detroit and Buffalo, its teams knocked out in the semifinals, weren’t represented in Anaheim for the first two games. Hockeytown is getting its coverage of the championship series elsewhere, but Buffalo joined the party in Ottawa for Game 3. It will bow out if the series goes back to California for a fifth game.
“We wouldn’t be (covering) if A: there wasn’t a little interest in Ottawa because the Sabres just played (the Senators) and B: it’s a reasonable drive for us,” said Howard Smith, executive sports editor of The Buffalo News. “We are a pretty good hockey town, in general, but even here there is very limited interest once the Sabres are eliminated.”
Boston, Philadelphia, Tampa, Denver, and Phoenix also have provided on-scene coverage.
“We did not cover the Stanley Cup finals last year because of the sale of the paper and budget concerns,” said Jim Jenks, executive sports editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I put it back in the budget because I believe the final of any major sport should be covered.”
The NHL debuted new events, such as the awards presentation and a tribute to the six surviving members of the Montreal Canadiens dynasty that won an unprecedented five consecutive Stanley Cup titles from 1956-60.
The hope was that the opportunity to speak to Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard would draw more coverage of the final.
“Our numbers this year are about what they were last year,” Bettman said.
But it is difficult to create a buzz with lower-profile teams such as Anaheim, Carolina and Tampa Bay – the two previous champions that bookended the 2004-05 lockout – facing Canadian opponents Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.
“It’s something that obviously you want to improve, but sometimes that’s the way it is,” said Crosby, the 19-year-old face of the NHL. “I don’t think it’s anything to panic over. There’s a lot of reasons to be excited about hockey.”
The cost of covering a series that requires long travel over a two-week period makes newspapers think twice about committing resources to an event that was watched in the U.S. on Versus by an average of 485,000 households through two games – a 20 per cent drop from last year.
If the series goes seven games in its 2-2-1-1-1 format, it would take six cross-continent trips for someone on the East Coast to cover it.
“All on short notice, which means no discount flights,” Smith said. “That might cost more than covering the entire Buffalo Bills road season for a reporter.”
Fans are relying on the Internet much more than in past years, and game stories have become much less significant. The reporter for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis is writing for the newspaper on off days and for the Internet on game days.
“We covet as much attention as we can get from every possible outlet and source,” Bettman said. “The newspaper industry is in a very challenging period. Editors, particularly sports editors, are looking to cut expenses every way they can. We are in changing and challenging times.”