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Even in empty buildings, NHL playoffs have been a viewer’s delight — and the Blackhawks agree

The NHL’s terrifically executed bubble setting and playoff TV schedule have been huge successes, among both fans watching at home and players watching within the bubbles.

The Blackhawks have not only played in some NHL playoff games but also enjoyed watching many others.
AP Photos

Dylan Strome has a room in the Blackhawks’ portion of the Sutton Place Hotel in Edmonton because he’s employed by the Hawks to play hockey, and the Hawks are in the NHL playoffs.

But even when he’s not the one playing, he’s still a huge fan. And when his provided room contains a television — well, he might as well make use of it.

“Everyone missed sports,” Strome said Sunday. “I know all of us missed hockey, for sure. It seems like as soon as we wake up, it’s usually 9:00, 10:00, or even 8:00 sometimes, there’s already a game on TV.”

So in between the Hawks’ games, practices, meals, workouts and bonding sessions, Strome has made sure to watch “a lot” of hockey from around the league. He’s not alone in that endeavor, either.

“[We] spend our day watching in the players lounge,” he said. “One game ends, and it seems like as soon as the horn blows for the end of that game, the anthem starts for the next game. The NHL is doing a great job of spreading the games out and making sure everyone gets on at a different time. It’s been fun to watch a lot of hockey.”

After 140 days without hockey, the return of the NHL playoffs has provided long-awaited, heavily craved entertainment for everyone passionate about the game, be it fans or players themselves.

The league’s terrifically executed bubble setting, expanded playoff field and coordinated start times — staggering the games in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles equally throughout the afternoon, evening and night — have blown away expectations.

COVID-19 has practically become a non-concern, too, with zero positives among 18,514 tests conducted over the past three weeks.

“They’ve done a really good job of setting this up, as you can see from the test results,” Patrick Kane said Monday. “Myself personally, I just like watching the games and relaxing, hanging out with the guys in the team lounge. It’s been good.”

Kane and Strome, in particular, avidly watch games on the Hawks’ off-nights even during the regular season, so this schedule is practically utopia for them. Without the usual grind of traveling between cities, there’s even more free time to be off-ice fans in addition to on-ice stars.

Rogers Place looks cavernous without fans, but the TV product hasn’t suffered much.
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Actual fans at home have clearly enjoyed the schedule, too.

NBC Sports announced Tuesday that TV ratings for the qualifying round were up 39% over their regular season average, with an average of 553,000 viewers, despite many games taking place during the daytime and/or on weekdays and being blacked out in favor of local broadcasts in the involved teams’ markets.

Chicago had, proportionally, the eighth-highest viewership of all U.S. cities.

In Canada, ratings have been unsurprisingly even higher. More than 5.7 million people reportedly watched at least a portion of Canadiens-Penguins Game 1 on Sportsnet, representing more than 15 percent of the country’s entire population.

The Hawks themselves might be contributing a small yet passionate boost to the Edmonton ratings. And that’s when they’re not traveling down to the block to Rogers Place and watching in-person, which has also happened frequently.

Practically the whole team was shown watching from the stands the Golden Knights-Avalanche game Saturday, and it sounds like coach Jeremy Colliton has done that far more than once.

“We spent four or five months without hockey, so [when] you can walk across the street and watch a playoff game, that’s a pretty good opportunity, you want to do that,” Colliton said Tuesday.

“Of course the priority is to prepare your own team, but in a lot of ways, by watching the other games, you are [preparing yourself]. Especially the other round-robin games here, we were watching, trying to get ready. Anytime you can watch a playoff game live, you’re going to take that opportunity.”