MONTREAL — The National Hockey League lockout is a minor disruption for TV networks in the U.S., where the sport’s share of the ratings pie is modest at best. But the lack of NHL games on TV in the hockey-mad Great White North is a huge headache for Canadian networks, where hockey sees viewership levels akin to that of football in the U.S. — and it may clear the way for more hours of American shows to find their way into Canadian homes.

The league already has canceled a large number of preseason games after it locked out players Sept. 15, following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the Players Assn., and the breakdown of talks between the two sides. With the specter of the lockout of 2004-05, which claimed the entire season, still fresh in their minds, network execs have a right to be worried.

The disruption is terrible news for pubcaster CBC, home to”Hockey Night in Canada,” the nation’s highest-profile hockey telecast, and consistently CBC’s top-rated show (averaging 2.1 million viewers on Saturdays). “Hockey Night” is a major profit center for the cash-strapped pubcaster. Some estimate that hockey accounts for half of CBC’s advertising revenue, though CBC does not make public how much money it brings to the company’s coffers.

Moreover, the absence of “Hockey Night” presents an opportunity for CBC’s rivals, like CTV and Global. In fact, CTV has announced it will air a two-hour block of “The Big Bang Theory,” the most popular show in Canada, on Saturday nights in the “Hockey Night” slot.

It’s no secret the bucks from hockey help to subsidize much of the homegrown drama and comedy on the mostly Canadian CBC schedule. During the two-month NHL playoffs, CBC runs hockey in primetime nearly every night, and garners huge ratings. The Stanley Cup Finals between the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils averaged 2.7 million viewers (in a country of roughly 34 million) and peaked with 3.1 million for the Kings’ clinching victory in Game 6. (Playoff games featuring Canadian teams, of course, consistently fare much better.)

CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson says the network has a contingency plan to deal with the lack of hockey, but wouldn’t provide specifics. In 2004-05, the pubcaster ran classic NHL games from its archives. The network doesn’t break out specific finances, so there’s no way to determine exactly how much money it lost. But the timing couldn’t be worse for the pubcaster this time around; the federal government last year slashed $115 million from its annual appropriation to CBC, and the network is in the midst of dealing with those cuts.

For Bell Canada, which owns the sports networks TSN and its French-language sister network RDS, NHL hockey is the cornerstone of their schedules. Worse for Bell, it recently partnered with rival broadcaster and telecom company Rogers Communications to buy Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment — owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team — for $1.32 billion. (Rogers also owns Sportsnet, which also leans on NHL hockey.)

In a similar situation with last year’s National Football League preseason lockout, the U.S. networks all were protected by after-market insurance. It’s unclear if any of the Canadian networks have the same stop-gap. CBC would only say, “We have provisions in our agreement with the league that address a labor disruption.”

When Bell Canada CEO George Cope clinched the deal to take over leading broadcaster CTV, he talked of the epiphany he had watching women’s hockey on his smartphone during the Vancouver Olympics, and made it clear that sports in general and hockey in particular were a key reason he realized Bell needed to have the CTV channels as part of its empire.

TSN president Stewart Johnston concedes that the loss of the NHL is a tough pill for his network to swallow.

“It’s an important property in our mix of content,” Johnston says. “It’s premium content with key advertisers.”

It’s going to be particularly difficult for TSN on weeknights, where NHL hockey was a staple. The network instead plans to show sports pics like “Caddyshack” and “Slapshot,” as well as vintage hockey games.

Many NHL players have headed to Europe to play, but those games are of little interest to viewers, says Johnston, who drily notes that TSN aired Swedish Elite League games in the lockout season of 2004-05, to dismal ratings. (In the lockout season of 2004-05, TSN lost $12.7 million in ad revenue, RDS lost $14.8 million, and Sportsnet lost $11.8 million.)

While TSN and Sportsnet news and magazine shows almost always focus on hockey for a big chunk of their airtime, the outlook on that front is not all bad. There will still be hockey talk — even if the players aren’t lacing up their skates.

“There’s never a shortage of conversations about what’s going on about the labor situation or with the players,” Johnston says.

Still, that’s little comfort for nets which, until the dispute is over, figure to see their ratings kept on ice. What: The NHL has already canceled exhibition games.
The takeaway: TV nets may see income slide; U.S. shows may find more room on Canadian airwaves.

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