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Thursday, June 6
Ratings improving, but still room for improvement

Associated Press

DETROIT -- In Detroit, few people are doing anything besides watching the Red Wings and the Carolina Hurricanes play for the Stanley Cup.

In New York and Los Angeles, there are apparently better things to do.

But there are signs of improved ratings for the NHL in an era where most sports are struggling to attract -- or even keep -- TV viewers with hundreds of options.

ESPN's telecast of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals was the network's most-viewed and highest-rated NHL contest in nearly three years, and its best finals opener ever.

The Hurricanes' 3-2 overtime victory Tuesday night over Detroit averaged 2,467,173 households and a 2.85 rating, an increase of about 40 percent over last year's Game 1 between New Jersey and Colorado.

Game 1 drew a 42.8 rating in Detroit, where the ratings were as high as 39.8 in the previous three rounds, and no lower than 14.1 when the Red Wings were playing in Vancouver.

But the Stanley Cup opener drew a 1.07 rating in New York and a 0.75 in Los Angeles.

''Obviously we've taken some steps in the right direction, but if anybody thinks that you just snap your fingers and your ratings double or triple overnight, they're not being realistic,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. ''This is a long-term proposition.

''Over time, with greater exposure both with teams in more places and with the television exposure that we've never had before on ABC and ESPN, more people will 'get' hockey on TV. But it will take time.''

The NHL averaged a 1.5 rating on ABC during the playoffs, the same rating it drew last postseason. About two million U.S. viewers watched regular-season games -- a 29-percent improvement from last season and the most since the 1996-97 season.

The five Colorado-Detroit playoff games on ESPN in the Western Conference final averaged nearly 3 million viewers per game -- the most to watch a conference final on cable since 1996 -- and a 2.1 rating, which made it the highest-rated series since the Red Wings and Avalanche played in 1997.

Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now an independent consultant, said hockey's biggest obstacle is attracting new viewers with no firsthand knowledge of the sport's skills.

''People who have never played the sport have no idea how difficult it is to skate about 28 mph and shoot a slap shot from the blue line without getting checked into the mezzanine,'' Pilson said.

Both Bettman and Pilson believe hockey stands to benefit from High Definition Television.

''HDTV will provide a significant advantage for hockey, because for the first time, people will be able to see all 10 skaters,'' Pilson said. ''Players will not come out of nowhere to score like they do now on conventional TV. The clarity of the picture and the quality of the sound with HDTV will help hockey more than any other sport.''

Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who has called the action for just about every sport other than hockey, said both hockey and baseball run into similar obstacles on TV, some of which may be alleviated when high-definition televisions are in more homes.

''Hockey is not the best sport on TV because of the wide expanse of ice with action in a lot of places that you can't see,'' Harwell said. ''Baseball on TV runs into some of those problems, too, because there may be something going on in right field and all over the bases at the same time and there's only one camera you can use live.

''Here in Hockeytown, obviously, nothing can hold down hockey ratings.'' home