PHILADELPHIA — The NHL’s TV ratings are soaring. Are fans tired of watching Netflix? Hungrier for hockey after the pandemic delayed the season? A combination of both?
With no hockey in October, November and December, the withdrawal, apparently, was painful.
That helps explain why a record number of folks watched NHL openers on TV in both the United States and Canada.
“I’m not sure I’m the right guy to answer that,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said Friday when asked about the high ratings. “I do know hockey is played at this time. The last time when we came back to the bubble in Toronto, it was summer. Hot sunny days — more of a golf time than anything else. Summer sports. Now it’s a little cooler. It’s cool in Canada, it’s cooler in some parts of the States. Usually this time is for hockey. I think people missed their hockey and were looking forward to it.”
As expected, Vigneault has been among the millions of viewers. “I watched most of the three games [the other night],” he said. “I went back and forth with some of the other games that were on the other channels. They were all quick, fast, but decision-making and execution was a little off sometimes. It is only going to get better. It was everybody’s first game.”
The Flyers’ 6-3 opening-night win Wednesday over the Pittsburgh Penguins averaged 972,000 viewers on the NBC Sports Network, making it the network’s most-watched regular-season game on record. And compared to last year, there was a 29% increase in the multiple games shown that night.
Across the border, the debut of the first all-Canadian division opened with two games on Sportsnet and had 6.6 million viewers, which was the most-watched opening night in the network’s history.
Fans, of course, aren’t allowed to attend NHL games (a handful of Flyers fans are the exception — at least for the time being — because of the pandemic.
To their credit, the Flyers have started a Front-Line Families program. Thanks to a waiver from city health officials, they can invite a front-line worker(s) and their family to each home game. On Wednesday, the attendees were Amanda (a nurse) and Josh (an EMT) Hatheway of Langhorne and one of their sons, Westin. On Friday, Kristen Lourie, a nurse and nurse supervisor in the pediatric intensive-care unit at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and her family were guests.
When they were notified they were going to the opener, Amanda Hatheway said, “we hung up the phone in tears. I didn’t even know if I was allowed to do this” because she was diagnosed with leukemia about two months ago.
Her husband, Josh, said he was “shaking” when he got the news they could attend the game, and he asked his wife to “get your oncologist on the phone right now. We need permission.”
The permission was granted. The family attended the game, one in which the Flyers scored at least six goals in an opener for just the fourth time in franchise history.
“We’re very simple people, so for us, this was over the top,” said Josh about his family being the only fans allowed to attend the game.
His wife, a nurse at St. Mary’s Medical Center, said the highlight was “seeing Oskar [Lindblom] come out. He beat cancer and that’s my goal.”
Before the game, the Flyers showed an emotional video of Vigneault and some Flyers players thanking front-line workers for their selflessness during the pandemic.
“It brought tears,” Amanda said.(c)2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.