With the Stanley Cup wrapping up and the hockey season finished for another year, it’s time to take a look at how NBC and their cable affiliates did in covering the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Buoyed by a new contract extension and televising each game of the postseason nationally for the first time, it meant more eyes were going to be on the coverage throughout the playoffs. In looking at the big picture, NBC’s playoff coverage is symbolic of their well-established, collaborative relationship with the sport of hockey.
-With each passing year, Mike Emrick rightly convinces more of the American population that he is the best play by play man currently behind a microphone. Just take a look at the wide range of quotes and emotions used in last night’s telecast. The man paints pictures with his words the way Rembrandt would with his brush or Shakespeare with his quill pen.* His skill in broadcasting a hockey game is unmatched across the sports spectrum and there’s nothing like Doc calling an overtime game in the playoffs. His excitement, his ability to back out and let the game take center stage, and his way of setting the scene are elite. Emrick’s broadcast partner Eddie Olczyk has also improved over the last few years and the pair make one of the top broadcast duos in sports.
*An admitted exaggeration… but just a slight one.
-NBC’s decision to air every game of the Stanley Cup Finals was past due and brought something extra to both hardcore and casual hockey fans alike. The NHL followed the largely successful March Madness model of going to multiple networks to show games at the same time, even using a non-sports network like CNBC along with NBC Sports Network and NHL Network. During the first rounds of the playoffs, this made one of the more enjoyable postseasons to watch even better. On a single night you could follow multiple overtime games, switch from one game to another without effort, and be put in charge of which game you wanted to watch. The decision to air the games in this way is very user-friendly, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this become a wider trend across sports. Although there were a couple hiccups with the coverage, it was a great success.
-The decision to show every game also made each postseason series seem more important in the early rounds especially. This led to a wider interest and higher ratings throughout the early rounds of the playoffs. Of course, having teams like Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, and the Rangers involved certainly helped the matter. Nevertheless, NBC Sports Network had the best playoff ratings for a cable network since ESPN in 2002 averaging 1.03 million viewers, another (small) step forward for the young channel.
*There was good news in the ratings department… and there was bad. When the big teams left, so did plenty of fans. There were some outside factors involved in the ratings slide for the Stanley Cup Final (going up against the NBA every night but last night for one), but the NHL just isn’t in a position nationally to do outstanding ratings without established national brands. The decision to place Stanley Cup Final games on NBCSN was criticized, but the practice has been around for years and is understandable in trying to build the cable network. Kings v Devils produced good hockey, but it was always going to struggle in the ratings. While it’s a disappointment for the NHL, it shouldn’t be treated as some kind of death blow. If we had Rays v Reds in the World Series and Pacers v Blazers, you’d be reading the same stories.
*Call this one an incomplete, but NBC needs to expand their on-air hockey talent as the established home of the sport. They’re very good at the top with Emrick and Olczyk and have some solid veteran pros like Dave Strader, Darren Pang, Brian Engblom, and Keith Jones. However, some of the broadcasts still needed to be filled with local announcers and Canadian feeds (to a varying degree of effectiveness). For NBC to take the next step, they need to supplement their expanded game coverage with more national announcers to fill those telecasts and a couple more studio shows throughout the day. A hockey show ala Golf Channel’s Morning Drive, a roundtable featuring some of their analysts, or even a show that bounces around the CSN affiliates with NHL teams can add even more to NBC’s NHL coverage.
*Pierre McGuire doesn’t receive the plaudits between the glass that his NBC counterparts do upstairs. Just do a simple Twitter search during a game and you’ll see he’s a level just below Tim McCarver in terms of generating internet buzz. I’ve always been rather indifferent to him as an analyst, but his decision to shy away from a heated exchange in the Eastern Conference Finals brought deserved criticism. His position between the glass is a unique one, but he’s not there to protect coaches and teams, he’s there to serve viewers, analyze, and if the case arises, report. If McGuire isn’t going to report the most interesting and most meaningful elements from being between the benches, and instead take some sort of honorable, mysterious high ground, then what’s the point of his presence there?
*Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick’s fights have a different vibe than the carnival barking often seen on more animated sets, but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable to watch. Unlike those staged debates, Milbury and Roenick actually seem like they may throw fists when engaging in one of their heated arguments. Milbury’s analysis on the whole is about as subtle as beating you over the head with a shoe… then again, he has experience with that.
In all, NBC took their NHL postseason coverage to the max in 2012 and delivered for viewers. While there are a few elements that can be improved (like any network), NBC does hockey and they do it well. As Greg Wyshynski noted at Puck Daddy a while ago, the NHL really doesn’t need ESPN anymore and can prosper in the long-term on NBC. The final grade for NBC’s NHL Playoffs coverage is a B+.