Was a Game Seven Manufactured by the NHL in 2009?

Since the pre-lockout days, the NHL has been begging for mainstream credibility. For many, the league was no longer even considered a "major" league.

However, since the NHL tweaked its rules in the wake of the lockout and parted ways with longtime TV partner ESPN, the league has been making strides to regain what it once had years ago.

As a gauge for this, look no further than the ratings for the Stanley Cup Finals.  In each successive year since the post-lockout, new-look NHL took the ice, ratings have risen. 

The 2009 Stanley Cup was no exception. Ratings increased with each successive game played during the Finals.

The NHL's main television partner is now NBC. Because the league took such a hit during the lockout, it signed an unusual deal with the network.  It isn't paid in the same way other networks pay the likes of the NFL, NBA, or MLB: Up front and in full. Instead, NBC and the NHL actually split the profits the network sees from its broadcasts of NHL games.

That deal, struck as the league reemerged from the lockout, was to come to an end at the conclusion of this '08-'09 season.  If NBC decided they didn't want to re-up with the NHL, the league was going to once again be without major media coverage in the U.S. 

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wasn't about to grovel at ESPN's doorstep, and none of the other major networks were calling. The NHL desperately needed to keep NBC as its partner.

NBC had the broadcast rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Hockey, complete with national teams filled with NHL stars, is a major television draw during the Winter Olympics. It is also a great promotional tool for the league. Both could see profit from working together in this venue.

So it only made sense that after Game Four of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals (in which the Penguins had tied the series up at two games a piece), NBC and the NHL agreed to a two year extension of their previous TV agreement.

Knowing how NBC co-existed with the NBA during the time the two were partners (and for an in-depth overview of this cozy situation, read the book Money Players), it should not surprise the average fan to see NBC and the NHL becoming more and more intertwined.

Now if both the NHL and NBC stood to gain equally in seeing ratings rise by the Stanley Cup Finals reaching a frenzied Game Seven, could such an outcome be prearranged by these partners?

Could the NHL/NBC conglomerate "ask" the Red Wings to intentionally drop Game Six to force a Game Seven?  While it may seem far-fetched on the surface, think of what occurs behind the scenes and what a potential payday could lurk in a Game Seven.  In such a scenario, hype increases, promotion increases, interest increases, and without a doubt, profit for the renewed partnership increases.

Everyone wins.

In Game Five at home, the Red Wings blanked the Penguins 5-0. With a chance to hoist Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh after Game Six, the Red Wings completely flopped. The Red Wings fired just three shots in the first period, and followed that up with only nine more in the second. The team played as if nothing was on the line. Yes, they appeared to pour it on with a greater fury as the clock ticked down, but the Red Wings lost. 

Game Seven followed. The NHL's collective smile grew as big as NBC's.

Pittsburgh and the NHL's newest "it" player Sidney Crosby ultimately won the Stanley Cup, but most importantly for all NHL owners Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was the most watched NHL game in the past 36 years.  It averaged over 8 million viewers and held a 4.3 rating, the highest since Game Seven between New Jersey and Anaheim in 2003.

But that, the NHL would have you believe, was all just a coincidence.