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Lack of national AHL television coverage inadequate in the face of NHL lockout

With such a wide open hockey market combined with a national public ravenous for their favourite pastime, it would seem like a no-brainer for Canada’s national television stations to temporarily replace their most watched product with another that is as close to a replica as one can get: the AHL.

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By Mike Cadarette (Contributor) – Email

Apathy and disappointment reign over the NHL CBA negotiations as fans from across the hockey world yearn to see their favourite team back on the ice. While that possibility is looking grim, other leagues remain in action, such as the American Hockey League. Considering how intimately engrained hockey is in Canadian culture, it’s rather disappointing not being able to come home from work or school and watch a game before calling it a night.

With such a wide open hockey market combined with a national public ravenous for their favourite pastime, it would seem like a no-brainer for Canada’s national television stations to temporarily replace their most watched product with another that is as close to a replica as one can get: the AHL.

In 2011-12, Rogers Sportsnet signed a five-year agreement with the American Hockey League to exclusively broadcast select games. Consequently, Sportsnet now has the broadcast rights to the second best league in North America, if not the world, during an NHL labour dispute. If you weren’t aware of that, don’t worry. It’s hard to tell since there are so few AHL games nationally televised by Sportsnet.

Instead, it seems Rogers would rather broadcast soccer, curling, skiing, or ugh, poker. Now in their second year of the deal, Sportsnet is really dropping the ball on an excellent opportunity, but why?

Let’s clear something up first. Rogers Sportsnet is a private broadcaster and isn’t obligated to provide anything to their viewers if it doesn’t make sense for them financially. Selling advertising has never been a difficult issue for broadcasters during hockey games, so that can’t possibly be what’s deterring the network from broadcasting the AHL while there’s no NHL.

Beginning this season, TVA Sports, a French Canadian specialty channel, agreed to a one-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens’ affiliate Hamilton Bulldogs to show the majority of their games, which can be seen locally in Quebec or subscribed to elsewhere in Canada. Realizing that the NHL labour negotiations could go on for some time, TVA Sports jumped at the opportunity to provide its francophone audience with some semblance of Canadiens hockey.

Sportsnet should follow TVA Sports’ lead in providing its audience with AHL hockey, even if it’s just a regional broadcast. For example, Sportsnet could broadcast Chicago Wolves, Abbotsford Heat, and Oklahoma City Barons games in BC and Alberta since they’re the regional AHL affiliates of NHL franchises located in Western Canada.

This isn’t the first case a national sports broadcaster has made a lax attempt of this sort. During the last lockout in 2004-05, the CBC aired an average four to six AHL games per month – an extremely small number considering teams play between 11 and 13 games each month.

Now, history is repeating itself during this lockout. Sportsnet pledged three games in October, four games in November and six games in December, which translates roughly to one game per week. The lack of television coverage is disappointing and inadequate.

When Sportsnet does decide to broadcast AHL games, they have disproportionately opted to cover certain teams. Of the seven AHL teams with Canadian NHL parent affiliates, the Hamilton Bulldogs have received the most broadcasted games with seven. The Toronto Marlies (affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs) and Abbotsford Heat (affiliate of the Calgary Flames) have gotten the second most broadcasted games with four each. The Chicago Wolves (affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks) will have been broadcast three times by the end of December. The St. John’s Ice Caps (affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets) will receive two games of national coverage followed by the Oklahoma City Barons (affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers) with one game and the Binghamton Senators (affiliate of the Ottawa Senators) with no games being broadcast to date.

It has always been the strategy of Canadian sports broadcasters to appeal to the most populace areas of Canada, which is likely why the Maple Leafs and Canadiens affiliates get the majority of the airtime, but what about Senators, Oilers and Jets fans who almost never get to see their team’s young up-and-comers?

As if it’s not enough putting Canadian hockey fans through the excruciating roller coaster of CBA nonsense, Sportsnet tortures them even more by not broadcasting their team’s best young prospects as a satisfactory alternative to the regular repertoire of NHL hockey each night.

Perhaps Sportsnet is right. Maybe Canadians do identify more with Texas Hold ‘Em as a cultural staple than ice hockey. But the cheers of South Fraser Way in Abbotsford during Vancouver Canucks playoff runs suggest the opposite.

While it’s understandable that Sportsnet doesn’t want to commit themselves to scheduling future AHL games just in case the lockout ends, Canadian hockey fans just want to see some live hockey and Sportsnet is under-delivering in their responsibility to cover the AHL.

All we can hope for is that Sportsnet will show AHL games more frequently than they have and broadcast all of the Canadian NHL team’s affiliates equally when they do. The hockey market on Canadian television is a giant yawning chasm of opportunity for Sportsnet. They need to take advantage of it or end their deal with the AHL and let another broadcaster deliver the games to the people that want it most. Canadian hockey fans deserve it.

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