It was a bit of a riptide that swirled across and through new media yesterday afternoon — more than 27 million Americans tuned in to the gold medal game on Sunday, making it the highest rated hockey on television in the States in 30 years. You had to go all the way back to Lake Placid and the Miracle on Ice weekend to beat the numbers NBC enjoyed on Sunday. Then the tsunami arrived: up in Canada, home to 33 million Canucks, 26.5 million in touques tuned in to some portion of the gold medal game on Sunday.
Or put another way: upwards of 80 percent of Canada watched Olympic hockey on Sunday.
Even by the standards of their life-consuming passion for the game they invented, that’s a staggering tally. It’s unbelievable, really.
Think about it. In a nation of 33 million, you figure a couple of million are infants and toddlers up to age 3 or 4 incapable of comprehending broadcast media or maintaining necessary attention to it. Toss in an incarcerated/institutionalized population of a couple million more without access necessarily to television in their living quarters. Hundreds of thousands more who were hospitalized or otherwise physically incapacitated from following the proceedings. You’re left with the roughly 26.5 million folks who tuned in.
So if you weren’t a newborn, in a coma, or in solitary confinement in Canada on Sunday, necessarily you watched the gold medal game. I actually believe some Canadian physicians performed surgery with the game on in their operating rooms. The numbers certainly suggest as much. Air Canada pilots had to have replaced transmissions of weather and air traffic in their cockpits with the game.
The entirety of sentient, liberated Canada watched a hockey game together on Sunday. Can any other nation in the history of the world make such a claim of sporting solidarity?
I love them even more now.
It’s a good thing they won; had the U.S. prevailed Canada today would be a nation of little more than orphans and prisoners and the bed-ridden. Very invade-able.
And remember: gold medal hockey ran opposite NBA hoops, presumably curling of some fashion, and NASCAR on Sunday — a car race featuring Danica Patrick competing in it. It’s not as if there were no other games being played then. (Sportsmedia Watch yesterday noted that NASCAR is in year three of a TV ratings freefall — even more hope for the salvation of mankind.)
In a column he wrote for CBC a couple of years back Hockey Night in Canada Radio’s Jeff Marek said of his country’s puck devotion, “Unlike in the United States, Canada spends its Saturday nights not out of the house but rather around the TV watching their favourite hockey presentation. It lives in our hearts, minds and we can even feel it in our bones — it is that deep.”
It went even deeper into the Canadian psyche and marrow on Sunday.
Back in the States, we have a long way to go to catch up with Canada’s puck passion. Clearly. But let’s not trivialize the enormity of Sunday’s TV numbers here. Take a look at what 27 million viewers means relative to other high-profile sporting events — it smashes some heavy-duty competition, notes the New York Times’ Media Decoder:
- The Masters (14 million viewers)
- The Daytona 500 (16 million viewers)
- The NCAA hoops final (17.6 million)
- The 2009 World Series (22.8 million)
- and the 2010 Rose Bowl (24 million)
“And most of those games were played in prime time,” notes Media Decoder. “The hockey game went on at 3 p.m. Eastern time — noon Pacific. The audience reached a high point of 34.8 million viewers from 5:30 to 6 p.m. when the game was sent into overtime by the U.S. team.”
In his column yesterday ESPN’s John Buccigross, attempting to make sense of the outlandish TV numbers, wondered why hockey’s every-four-years’ burst of popularity never seems to translate to the NHL.
” . . . there are plenty of NHL games like [Sunday] in terms of excitement and quality of play. We hockey fans get it. It just makes you wonder why more people don’t get the joys of watching and following hockey.”
It’s an existential query, and hardly uninteresting. Once upon a time I fixated on it and furrowed my brow over hockey’s red-headed stepson status. No more. Not after these Games. When I drive to Florida and first encounter the sight of the very first palm tree, I’m warmed by the sense of arriving someplace special. When next I visit Canada I’ll have a similar feeling — the hockey stick is their palm tree, and on Sunday just about every Canadian raised one high in the air in a reflexive salute to the passion that’s in their bones.