If I may speak Canadian for a second, few organ-eye-zations were as happy to see the end of the NHL lockout as the NBC Sports Group, which is in the second year of its 10-year, $2 billion contract to carry NHL hockey.
It was Jan. 2, 2012, when the cable channel Versus was rechristened NBC Sports Network, which debuted with postgame analysis of the New York Rangers’ 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL Winter Classic. (The game itself was on NBC.)
NBCSN built on its audience during the London Olympics last summer, but a lot of that momentum was squandered when the NHL owners locked out the players and wiped out the first three months of the hockey season.
NBC Sports Group, which is owned by Comcast/NBC Universal, took a hit in advertising revenue during the work stoppage. The network doesn’t share specific figures, but companies such as GEICO — one of the largest advertisers for NBC hockey broadcasts — don’t pay for commercial spots on games that don’t take place. The NHL Winter Classic and the All-Star Game were also wiped out this season, further dimming the sport’s TV luster.
The bright spot for NBC is that the 48-game regular season will be followed by a full playoff tournament, which is when ratings and network revenues are at their highest.
The Sabres’ opener against the Flyers today gets national attention, with Mike “Doc” Emrick and Pierre McGuire on hand at First Niagara Center to call the game for NBC. Buffalo has one other home game on NBC – Sunday, Feb. 17, against Pittsburgh. Five of the Sabres’ games will be carried on NBCSN, and MSG will have the other 41 this season.
All of NBC’s hockey talent sounded excited to be getting back into the booth this past week during a conference call with media writers and broadcasters. McGuire said he can’t wait to feel the energy inside First Niagara Center.
“That’s going to be a very exciting game based on the energy level that’s in the Sabres’ building,” McGuire said. “The excitement of the fan base, and the fact that last year’s science experiment didn’t work out the way they wanted to. So General Manager Darcy Regier said, ‘We’re going to make some changes. Rather than be a smaller team we’re gonna bring a little bite in.’
“So Steve Ott is one of those guys, coming over from Dallas for Derek Roy. Marcus Foligno is another one of them. The son of Mike Foligno is going to bring a whole lot of physical impact to the party.
“I think the biggest thing is Tyler Myers is a year older, a year stronger and a year more mature,” McGuire continued. “This is an opportunity for Ryan Miller to really make a statement that he is one of the better goalies that’s played in the league over the last 15 years.”
Emrick said it is always “magnificent” for him to return to Western New York and witness the Sabres’ fan support.
“Even in years that haven’t been that great in the past, they have had the fans there,” Emrick said. “I think Terry Pegula and his arrival energized the whole community once again, that had maybe had some sour moments. ... The reason for them to support hockey is because it’s a part of their upbringing, it’s a part of their DNA, as it is with most hockey communities.”
Emrick talked about hearing coach Lindy Ruff speak last week about how heartened he was by the sight of thousands of fans at the team’s first public scrimmage.
“Just on a Monday night in January and that many people showed up,” Emrick said. “It’ll be an energized atmosphere, it’s their first game, and I just can’t wait for that action to take place on Sunday afternoon. … I hope the organist is still there to play, ‘Let’s go Buffalo!’ ”
McGuire has been doing his research. He summed up the Sabres prospects for this year.
“I think the season’s going to come down to this: Can Cody Hodgson deliver as a No. 1 center?” McGuire said. “Can Tyler Ennis step up and be the dynamic smaller player that he has to be for this team, and can Tyler Myers have a bit of a bounceback to how he was as a rookie?
“If those three things are all checkmarks, saying yes, yes and yes, then I think Buffalo has got a real chance to make it in the playoffs and do some damage, because that’s where I think Ryan Miller is the most comfortable. But if you don’t have three solid checkmarks by Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis and Tyler Myers, I don’t think you’re gonna make the playoffs. Those three guys are critical to that team.”
Today’s NBC coverage gets under way at noon with NHL Live, a pregame show hosted by UB graduate Liam McHugh and featuring analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. The show will air from NBC Sports Group’s brand new International Broadcast Center in Stamford, Conn. Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was asked if the technology in the new center would bring any new special effects to the game broadcasts. The short answer is: no.
“Our job is to honor the game of hockey,” Flood said. “Glowing blue pucks and pink pucks and green pucks and red pucks, that’s not what we’re about,” he said, in a not-too-subtle reference to Fox Sports and its FoxTrax puck that glowed on the screen.”
Rick Jeanneret is behind the Sabres’ microphone for his 41st season. As the Sabres announced in June, Rob Ray will be paired with Jeanneret as the full-time color analyst for the TV (MSG) and radio (WGR) broadcasts.
Brian Duff is the full-time TV host for games on MSG. Harry Neale, Danny Gare and Mike Robitaille will also contribute analysis.