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The Best Way To Stream The NHL Playoffs Is Dead

Sportsnet's Hockey Night In Canada studio set
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The NHL playoffs' best-kept secret was that anyone with a Canadian IP address could easily stream CBC's broadcasts—one or two games on most nights. To view their back catalogue of shows, or to watch a variety of local stations, one needed to create an account on the CBC website. But if the site recognized you as a fellow Canuck, whether it was because you were in Canada or using a VPN, it would freely give you whatever was live on its Ottawa channel (the capital of Canada!).

I'm using the past tense here because this little gift of public television has been crushed by the Rogers Communications monolith. On Wednesday, without warning, users of the CBC Gem streaming service found themselves locked out of the Bruins-Panthers and Oilers-Canucks doubleheader. CBC put this on its website to explain:

NHL playoffs will not be available on CBC Gem, however viewers can still tune into CBC Television or stream on Sportsnet+ to watch the games.

Why isn’t CBC streaming the Playoffs on CBC Gem? 
While we were pleased to be able to offer NHL games to hockey fans this season through an agreement with Rogers Sportsnet, the national rightsholder for NHL hockey, CBC no longer has access to streaming any of the Playoff games. 

Contrary to occasional misconceptions (sometimes encouraged by me), I am not Canadian. But I grew up watching CBC's hockey coverage because it's available in areas near the border, like Metro Detroit. While it's hard to talk about the whole of its history without also noting that its most famous segment, "Coach's Corner," ended in ultimate embarrassment for all involved, I can very confidently proclaim the Canadian broadcasts' superiority to what's currently available on American TV. The importance of studio chatterboxes is greater in hockey than in other sports because it essentially has two halftimes, and up north they (especially Kevin Bieksa) do a good job providing analysis that is both friendly and intelligent. This bit about the placement of the doors on the Nashville arena's benches is a great example of something I absolutely never would have thought about before but can now carry with me for future Preds games.

On the other hand, ESPN, which has never prioritized hockey, maintains a distance from the sport that makes it feel more like hired babysitter than parent, and the Turner studio segments are an unbearable testosterone overdose. But that's not where the differences stop. The very beginning of a Canadian playoff broadcast, especially a big one, is consistently a treat for fans because their hype videos are unparalleled. The producers and editors who create these pieces have a tremendous passion for hockey's past, present, and future, and it shows. The AC/DC-fueled intro for the Bruins-Leafs Game 7 last Saturday was an especially memorable masterstroke of editing, and the fact that it exists on a linear timeline with Foster Hewitt calling Hockey Night In Canada games on the radio in the 1930s is, to me, a beautiful thing.

Let's get back to the problem at hand. This game, like so many others, was available for viewers of CBC. But to call it a "CBC game" would be incorrect. It may not shock you to learn that a public broadcaster has been dealing with financial difficulties, and CBC does not have "hockey playoff rights in 2024" money. (One of its most heavily promoted shows right now is a sandcastle-building competition.) The dizzyingly gigantic Rogers Communications does have the money, and a little over 10 years ago it signed a transformative deal for national English-language NHL rights that's still active. In doing so, it could have ripped away Hockey Night In Canada from CBC and disrupted a tradition practically as old as television itself. Instead it worked out a simulcast agreement for regular-season Saturday nights and a large chunk of the playoffs. These NHL games are branded under the Rogers pay channel Sportsnet, but they're freely available to watch on CBC. For anyone with access to the latter and not the former, they remain, effectively, CBC games.

That simulcast agreement remains for traditional television, but for those who relied on the free streaming on CBC Gem, the NHL has vanished. The obvious reason why is right there in the first sentence of the CBC announcement above: "Viewers can still tune into CBC Television or stream on Sportsnet+ to watch the games." Sportsnet+, a Rogers product, is a subscription service that would like to draw more customers. The ease of CBC Gem for certain games was an impediment to those goals. For them to cut ties at one of the highest-leverage moments imaginable—right before the Oilers and Canucks opened a series against each other—is a cynical act.

I envy the fan that hasn't yet had to deal with these shenanigans, which come in several forms but all boil down to "we want to charge more for the games you like to watch." Whether it's the Yankees pulling games off the local broadcast station and putting them on Amazon, YouTube TV's sudden loss of the Mets, Colorado's long-running struggle to watch the Avs or Nuggets on Stan Kroenke's station, or the Detroit RSN's new fight with Comcast, it now feels like part of a fan's duties to navigate these sudden shifts in availability—in addition to, you know, cheering. In all of these situations, there remains a glimmer of hope that new agreements can reverse the annoying decisions and solve the impasses. But that puts an awful lot of faith in a megacorp doing something for a reason other than maximizing profits. For those who used CBC Gem to make the great sport of hockey an even greater experience, it's a timely reminder that none of the suits upstairs really give a shit about that.

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