September 21, 2012
If you ask any Canadian what the nation’s most famous sporting achievement was there’s a good chance that they’ll say beating the Russians in an eight-game hockey series back in 1972. This was known as the Summit Series and Canada’s NHL stars came storming back to win the last three games on Russian soil to eke out a series win. The most famous goal in Canadian hockey history was scored in game eight of that series by Paul Henderson of the Toronto Maple Leafs and came with just 36 seconds to go in the eighth and final game.
With the NHL lockout in full swing, many players are taking off to Europe to sign for clubs and there could be some charity games held in North America. However, the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) has also been talking about holding another Canada vs Russia tournament to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the original series. There have been reports circulating about another eight-game showdown in November if the NHL lockout is still on.
It’s likely that the fans would love to see this, but the players may have different ideas. Some of the best-paid NHL’ers may not be willing to risk their multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts by taking part in such an event. The possibility of a serious injury looms every time they step onto the ice. It’s also unclear how a new series would go over with television broadcasters and league sponsors. The NHLPA feels if it could sell the rights then the players can divide the money up between them and dig their heels in for a long lockout.
The union has reportedly already gotten in touch with Hockey Canada and have discussed the possibility of a tournament. This is because the organization is experienced in handling details such as hotels and travel and hiring off and on-ice staff. Sponsors and advertisers are likely to be quite interested, but the broadcasters could be another story. Many of them in Canada, such as TSN, Sportsnet, and the CBC have deals in place with the NHL and specific regional teams and are leery about ruining their relationships with the NHL.
In addition, two of the biggest sports channels in Canada, Sportsnet and TSN are owned by the Bell and Rogers media companies who also own the Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s also the question about timing. If any of the games were played in Russia it means they would be broadcast live in North America during the afternoons because of the time difference. Of course, this isn’t exactly prime time viewing and the ratings might be low.
Television broadcasters have shown games in the past though during NHL lockouts. Back in 1994 the CTV network paid the union approximately $200,000 for the rights to show a four-on four tournament that was made up of NHL stars. Also, CBC paid $400,000 for the rights to show a pair of games on Hockey Night in Canada that originated from Europe. These were games that former star Wayne Gretzky had put together and the network drew nearly a million viewers for each contest in Canada.
But even if the big TV networks balked at broadcasting a Canada vs Russia tournament, there are ways to get it out there. It’s believed the NHLPA might be able to make a deal with Cineplex Entertainment and have the games broadcast at movie theaters across the continent. This has been successful, in other parts of the world, especially in India, where the country’s top cricket league is often shown. Cineplex has also shown live sports in Canada before and owns 1,445 movie screens in the nation.
Another option would be to broadcast the games online by striking a deal with somebody like Yahoo and there are also other networks and independent channels to deal with such as The Score, which is another popular sports channel in Canada and doesn’t have any deals in place with Rogers or the NHL. Channels that lie near the Canadian/American border such as Detroit and Buffalo could also be interested since both of those cities have NHL teams. Pay-per-view is another possibility, but that’s the least likely of them all since fans won’t be willing to pay for games they can usually see for free.
If the games could be sold to other hockey-loving nations such as Finland and Sweden then it would help defray the production costs. If they were sanctioned by the NHLPA then players would definitely need insurance. It’s estimated that a healthy player who’s in his mid-20s would pay about $35,000 for every million dollars worth of coverage. Back in 2004, when the NHL players were also locked out, this coverage cost about $15,000.
The key to a possible Canada vs Russia series though would be the players themselves. It all depends on which ones would be willing to play. If the league’s superstars such as Sidney Crosby of Canada and Alexander Ovechkin of Russia weren’t a part of their respective teams then fans wouldn’t be interested. Everybody wants to see the best take on the best and isn’t really interested in seeing third and fourth-line players. Also, if the NHLPA is going to be sanctioning the event, it’s going to be hard to leave out players who hail from other nations.
It wouldn’t be fair to American-born players and other Europeans to be left out of the venture. This means a Canada/Russia series may just turn into a North American vs European tournament. The odds of anything of this magnitude taking place during the NHL lockout seem pretty remote at this point in time though.