This is hockey's dream matchup, a Stanley Cup final featuring Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers trying to upset the three-time defending champion New York Islanders.
Even the NHL's top brass couldn't ask for a more attractive series to showcase its product, but don't expect this series--starting tonight in Edmonton--to show up on the television networks' prime-time schedule.
Despite what appears to be high ratings potential, with the combination of the New York market and the league's top player, none of the commercial networks have any immediate plans to air final-round games.
"In all fairness, they didn't know the schedule till last Saturday (when the Islanders defeated Boston for the Wales Conference championship)," said Joel Nixon, the NHL's vice president of broadcasting. "And although I won't say it's impossible, I would say it's unlikely that we would get any calls. They would not clear prime time for us, because May is a ratings sweeps period, and the prime-time scheduling is fixed with so-called blockbuster movies."
The USA cable television network, based in northern New Jersey, holds exclusive rights to the Stanley Cup finals, although Nixon said the league could preempt USA if one of the networks came through with a more lucrative deal.
"I would be reluctant to preempt," Nixon said. "Simply because you hate to take something from the people you work with all season, who will be back next season, for the chance to earn modest ratings in an afternoon game."
Hockey was last seen on network television during May 1980, when the Islanders were about to win their first Stanley Cup. The sixth game of their series with Philadelphia was carried by CBS on Saturday afternoon, with a rating of 4.4. Ratings in the Sunbelt were significantly lower and, since then, the NHL has not sought network attention.
"We had a few talks, very informally, with the networks last March," Nixon said. With the possibility of a strike by the NBA, there might have been some interest, but Nixon said the league's agreement with USA has worked well for hockey, delivering about 17 million homes.
"The networks might have been more interested in a New York-Chicago or New York-Los Angeles series, which would have delivered two major markets and could generate a high rating," he said. "But even though Gretzky might possibly transcend that, it's a gamble, and network people do not gamble."
Even without network exposure, the final series promises to transcend the matchups of recent years. The Islanders, attempting to become only the second team to win four consecutive Cups (Montreal holds the record with five, from 1956-60), have won 15 straight playoff series, and defeated the Oilers during the 1981 quarterfinals.
But Edmonton, defeated three times by the Islanders during the regular season, has won 11 of its 12 playoff games, outscoring the opposition, 74-33.
"Anybody who thinks we are just the Wayne Gretzky show is wrong," said Oilers Coach Glen Sather. "We've got four 40-goal scorers and a fine defense."
The Oilers also have gotten consistent goaltending from Andy Moog, who has won 44 games in his first full NHL season, including the playoffs.
A year ago, the Oilers lost in the playoffs to the Los Angeles Kings.
"We were too cocky last year," said forward Dave Lumley. "Laughing at the other team and cutting up. But we've got more class this year. And we're ready for the Islanders."
Even if network television is not.