The 49th parallel has never looked so significant.
While Canadian fans were enjoying the standard high-quality broadcast from CBC's Hockey Night in Canada Saturday afternoon -- more on the afternoon part later -- fans south of the border were shut out as the Ottawa-Buffalo game went to overtime.
You would think American-based fans would be used to this by now. After years of neglect from ESPN, bashing from the radio and print media, and general substandard coverage, it would be hard for things to get worse. Yet they did.
By now, most hockey fans are aware NBC broke away from the game, which started at 11 a.m. pacific time, at 1:42 p.m. pacific time. The Preakness, which is a horse race for those of you who are not as Hoof Hearted as Versus' Keith Jones, was set to begin.
Set to begin at 3:15 pacific time, that is.
Curiously, the hockey game was scheduled until 2 p.m. pacific time on NBC, yet the broadcast ended 18 minutes early.
The broadcast was moved to Versus, which provided limited success. First of all, an 11 a.m. start is early -- very early. Hockey is a night game, and many long-time fans are not into watching games before lunch. Personally, I am part of that group, so I did what I always do with afternoon playoff games.
I TiVoed it.
And I am not the only one. I have yet to talk to a west coast resident who watched the game live. It is simply too early in the day -- for many of us, sports are simply not the same at that time of day. That is just one of many reasons I prefer the CFL to the NFL, the latter of which I almost never watch. But that is another column for another website.
The second group of people affected was those watching in bars. In Southern California, asking for a hockey game on television can be hazardous to your health if there are Dodger, Laker, or Raider fans nearby. Yet as the Ducks have progressed, most bars actually showed Saturday's game. True, Anaheim was not playing, but interest in the sport is -- or was -- increasing through the team's playoff run.
Again, an informal survey of several bars showed none of them figured out where the game was moved until overtime was over. NBC gave a very quick briefing on the screen as to where the game would go, but if anyone was looking away (and that is a pretty good chance right after the end of a period), they missed the announcement.
There was no ticker on the bottom of the Preakness coverage telling hockey fans where to watch the game. When 20 minutes or more passed, most bartenders and patrons realized the game had moved, but did not know where.
After all, stations like MSNBC, CNBC, and USA Network -- all owned by NBC -- would have been the first guess for many people.
No, it was on Versus. To be honest, if the game was going to move, this makes sense. The channel is one of the few American channels that believes in the NHL, so why not give them some bonus coverage?
The only issue is carriage. Although I have long been an advocate of people getting DirecTV or Dish Network if their cable company does not carry Versus -- FCC regulations prohibit condo associations and homeowners associations from preventing the installation of these dishes -- the fact remains, not all people who receive NBC also receive Versus.
If people knew prior to the game there was a risk of this happening, they could have made arrangements. People with no cable or no Versus could have gone to a local bar, a friend's house, or made other plans.
On 17 minutes notice, that is not possible.
The irony of the whole thing is the game was played at a game time set by NBC. CBC certainly does not like afternoon games -- it kills ratings in Canada. Canadians watch hockey at night. Afternoons are for enjoying the day -- getting out of the house. Saturday night is for hockey.
NBC has arrogantly dismissed this tradition by insisting on afternoon games. Yet here is a case where had the game been played at 5 p.m. pacific time/8 p.m. eastern time, the horse race would have been over. Like most hockey fans, I have no clue what NBC shows Saturday in prime time -- and from this point on, most hockey fans will avoid NBC altogether -- but I can not imagine it is so vital that it can not be pre-empted for the conference finals.
If NBC wanted the game in the day, they had an obligation to the league and the league's fans to follow the game through.
NBC Universal's Brian Walker told the Globe and Mail the decision to leave the game early will not be repeated, but he also stated the contract with the Preakness required them to leave the game.
In other words, it will not be repeated unless it is repeated.
Hockey fans deserve better. The NBC experiment has been flawed since day one. The games get low ratings, yet nobody recognizes the morning/afternoon game times are the reason. Even the NFL gets higher ratings for Sunday night and Monday night games than they do for Sunday afternoon games.
Even if all games are on pay-per-view, the league must re-establish credibility by playing the games at night and showing the game in entirety. Being on network television -- with these constraints -- is simply not worth the consequences.