Several major Canadian networks are poised to face off for a battle over hockey rights on TV, and it could well turn into quite a shoot-out over the course of the next year.

Pubcaster CBC has been the main hockey broadcaster for the past four decades and has no intention of giving up the lucrative rights without a struggle. But there are at least three other players looking to grab some of CBC’s ice time: Private web CTV, Toronto-based Baton Broadcasting and national cable specialty service the Sports Network (TSN).

TSN broadcasts approximately 35 regular-season NHL games annually, along with one first-round playoff series, but its deal with CBC expires at the end of this season. TSN would like to renew with CBC, but both CTV and Baton are looking at bidding for that package.

In addition to the national games shown by CBC and TSN, there are innumerable local hockey games. Most local broadcasters have their own packages.

The fight could come to a head in the spring when CBC’s six-year deal with beer giant Molson Breweries, which currently controls all the national rights, comes to an end.

Here’s why so many people want a piece of the NHL pie: CBC pulls in around 1. 3 million viewers for its national “Hockey Night in Canada” telecasts on Saturday nights, making it one of the net’s top draws.

But the real payoff for the pubcaster is during the Stanley Cup playoffs (starting next month). The web rearranges its entire prime time sked during the two-month playoff period, airing hockey six or seven nights a week from mid-April to mid-June. Over the past several years, CBC has been attracting average nightly audiences in the range of 1.8 million and 1.9 million during the playoffs.

CTV also has posted excellent numbers with hockey, though it does not actually show any NHL games. The private network has done very well with the non-NHL Canada Cup, the international hockey tournament that takes place every four years. CTV drew 3.5 million viewers during the final Canada Cup games two years ago and the audience was close to 5 million for the last games of the dramatic 1987 Canada Cup series.

National hockey rights are estimated to cost the pubcaster in the neighborhood of $ C25 million ($ 18 million) annually. CBC says it makes a substantial profit with hockey but won’t divulge figures.

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