It seems almost inconceivable in today's 500 cable channel universe, but the NHL had no national television contract the last time an all-Original Six Stanley Cup Final was held. In 1979, as the Rangers and Canadiens were about to face off for the opening game of the final, the NHL and ABC agreed to an eleventh-hour deal that should the series go the distance, the seventh game would air on ABC. Alas, Montreal captured the Cup in five games and the only way U.S viewers could watch the series was if your city was part of the NHL's syndicated package on the defunct independent Hughes Television Network.
That won't be the case this year as the battle between Chicago (the No. 3 television market in the U.S.) and Boston (No. 7) portends big ratings for NBC and the NBC Sports Network. The last time the Blackhawks were here -- in 2010, when they beat Philadelphia in six games -- the series had the highest Cup final viewership of the last six years, with 5.1 million average viewers. Boston's seven-game win over Vancouver the following year averaged 4.5 million, a respectable number given their opponent was the small-market Vancouver Canucks.
Here is a sure bet: This year's matchup will top last year's (Kings over Devils), which averaged 3.0 million viewers over six telecasts between NBC and the NBC Sports Network, the worst average for the Stanley Cup Final since 2007.
With Game 1 set for Wednesday night in Chicago, here's all you need to know about the television coverage of this year's Cup:
• Which networks will air the games? Pay attention here: Games 1 and 4 will air on NBC while Games 2 and 3 will be on the NBC Sports Network. If the series is not a sweep, Games 5-7 will air on NBC.
• What time will the games start? The puck drops at 8:00 pm. ET.
• Who will be calling the games? The play-by-play announcer is Mike Emrick, one of the best broadcasters regardless of sport. Eddie Olczyk serves as the analyst and Pierre McGuire will be situated between the glass as the on-ice reporter. The studio team consists of host Liam McHugh and analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. Darren Pang and Jeremy Roenick will conduct on-ice segments and demonstrations prior to games. NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said Pang, McGuire and Roenick will be part of a pregame segment starting with Game 2 where they break down a key moment and explain (on the ice) why it happened.
• Why are two games airing on the NBC Sports Network instead of NBC? "It's always been the system even when you had the NBC Sports Network as Versus -- that's the contract," Flood said. "We've always had the two games there and that's part of providing the value of the NBC Sports Network to cable operators. Clearly, it's an advantage to drive the audience back and forth between the two [networks] and you saw it throughout the playoffs. We were getting incredible numbers off NBC Sports Network as well as NBC. The promotion across the two platforms is a huge win for us. That combination is a great way to grow the NBC Sports Network.
• Wait, so NBC is cool with losing viewership by not airing games on NBC in exchange for the added attention and recognition for the NBC Sports Network? "Presumably, that lessens over the years as more and more people realize that you don't have a cable system if you don't have the NBC Sports Network," Flood responded. "You can have five ESPNs in places, so you certainly should have one NBCSN. The value of this network is self-evident."
• What kind of series are the broadcasters predicting? "I expect a low-scoring series," said Olczyk. "These two teams really know how to defend. They have star power at every position but to me I'm expecting defense to prevail in this series. I think it will be a long series, but I also would not be shocked if it ends in four or five (games) because these teams are so close."
• How about a bold predictions from an analyst? "We might only see one power-play goal in the series and that could be the difference between winning and losing," Olczyk said "That's how good these teams are shorthanded...You could see power plays being 0-for-16, 0-for-17 at some point."
• What production elements are NBC excited about? NBC will use a technology they call Dreamcatcher which allows it to zoom in on the action without losing picture quality anywhere on the screen. "In a game like hockey, this is a valuable toy because when you don't lose clarity, you are able to get to the puck and show how it moves," Flood said. "We will use that for the back end of the series and it will be a lot of fun to have."
• What are NBC Sports public relations staffers reminding reporters about at every turn? For the first time in Stanley Cup history, the final is being streamed live through NBC Sports Live Extra for desktops, mobile devices, and tablets. (For desktops, NBC Sports Live Extra can be accessed at NBCSports.com/liveextra. The NBC Sports Live Extra app for mobile devices and tablets is available at the App Store for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, and on select Android handset and tablet devices within Google Play.) In addition to live streaming, NBC Sports Live Extra will utilize Star Cam and Spotlight Cam for each game. Star Cams are dedicated cameras that follow a star player from each team throughout the entire game. Spotlight Cam is a top-of-the-glass camera positioned at center ice.
• Pierre McGuire's work has drawn very loud supporters and detractors, even though his position in the broadcast would suggest neutrality. Does NBC consider him a polarizing broadcaster? Said Flood: "I consider Pierre to be the gold standard, The position of being inside the glass was created because of Pierre. His skill set is uniquely suited to telling stories on air. His knowledge of the game and background of every player on the ice is incredible. He is a huge asset. He won an Emmy Award this year for obvious reasons. The sad thing about how society is today is there are a small group of people who shout loud and hide behind blogger names and fraudulent titles and attack people. They attack Cris Collinsworth. They attack Al Michaels. They attack Pierre McGuire. They attack Mike Milbury. They attack Keith Jones. They are a bunch of chickens who hide behind their Twitter names and attack people. Shame on them. If you want to say something, say it with your name behind it. But if you want to hide behind funny little names on the Internet, be my guest. But shame on you."
• What kind of ratings have NBC and NBC Sports Network averaged for the NHL playoffs? Games airing on NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC have averaged 1.07 million viewers, the second-most watched postseason in 16 years, but a tick behind last season (1.089 million). NBC's airing of games has averaged 2.42 million through the first three rounds, up 12 percent from last year (2.17 million).
• The conference finals really did well in the ratings, right? Yep. They averaged 2.65 million viewers across NBC (two games) and NBC Sports Network (seven). NBC said it was the most-watched conference finals in 17 years since Fox and ESPN aired 13 games in 1986 and averaged 2.86 million viewers. Of particular note: Game 5 of the Western finals averaged 3.81 million viewers, NBC's most-watched non-Stanley Cup Final playoff game ever (since 2006), and the most-watched conference final game in 16 years.
• How should viewers feel about Olczyk calling the Blackhawks on a national level given that he does games locally? Flood said there are no issues. "I'll go back to Game 7 against Detroit," he said. "They called a penalty at the end of the game that cost the Blackhawks a regulation win and Eddie Olczyk was the one who said it was the right call and the Blackhawks should have been called on it. So if Eddie Olczyk said that, when everyone who was a Blackhawks fan thought it was the worst decision of all time and Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Pierre McGuire all thought it was a bad call, I don't have too much worry about in terms of him saying what he believes."
• Olczyk is in his seventh season as the color analyst for Blackhawks hockey on Comcast SportsNet Chicago and WGN-TV Channel 9. How does he approach a national broadcast involving the Blackhawks? "The only difference is you don't use nicknames and I read a lot less promos when I am with Doc [Emrick] because that is one of Doc's fortes," Olczyk said. "I think I do the same job locally. I try to teach the game. I try to sell the game on an individual basis. But those are the only two things. You use nicknames on the local show because you are catering to the hometown fans."
• What about the NHL Network? How are the covering the Stanley Cup Final? Well, if you can find the network on your cable system, there will be a ton of programming. NHL Network will have three hours of live coverage on each game night including a two-hour NHL Tonight pregame show from 6-8 p.m. ET. That show will be anchored by Kathryn Tappen, Barry Melrose and Kevin Weekes and feature guest analysts Mike Johnson, Pang, and Doug Weight. There will also be a postgame show featuring press conferences and highlights. On non-game days, NHL Network will air NHL Live from 5-7 p.m. ET as well as a one-hour edition of NHL Tonight (7-8 p.m. ET).