On the eve of its first playoff action in almost two years, the NHL is bathing in the glow of fan adulation, emerging superstars and competitive parity.
The league got much of what it wished for in its first season back after losing 2004-05 to a work stoppage. Rule changes produced higher scoring. Fans returned in greater numbers than ever. New stars came out in cities that seemed to need them. Competitive division races produced playoff matchups with no clear favorites.
Amid all the cheer, one caveat lingers. Fewer than 200,000 people watched the average NHL contest on national television. And with most games appearing on OLN - a network unfamiliar to many casual sports fans - television experts question whether that audience can grow.
"They've rebounded probably better than anyone expected," said Bob Gutkowski, a sports television consultant and former president of Madison Square Garden. "But a lot of their inherent problems are still their inherent problems."
ESPN hockey analyst John Buccigross was more enthusiastic.
"To take one year off and come back with the big crowds, to have the infusion of young players, to have a lot of goals, to have the Canadian teams do well and to have a playoff team in the biggest American media market," he said. "I don't think they could've done any better. Any damage was minimal outside of maybe the TV deal."
The NHL quickly showed it would have no problem recapturing its core fans, setting total attendance records in each of the season's first four months.
Overall, attendance was up from 2003-04 in 19 of 30 NHL cities and was down significantly in only a few. Ten teams averaged sellout crowds for the season.
Crowds even swelled in non-traditional hockey markets such as Raleigh, N.C., Tampa Bay and San Jose, where winning teams galvanized local interest.
The experience contrasted greatly with that of Major League Baseball after a work stoppage wiped out the 1994 World Series. Though baseball crowds eventually exceeded pre-strike levels, it took several years in most cities.
One city where fans did not stream back was Washington, where the Capitals lost about 800 fans a night from their 2003-04 average. The dip came despite the presence of a scintillating young star, Alexander Ovechkin.
Owner Ted Leonsis said the combination of the lockout, the team's selling off of older stars and the arrival of baseball's Washington Nationals cut into season-ticket sales. "The second half, as word started to get out that we were a fun team with a magnetic star, we started to grow," he said. "The e-mails and the press we're getting now are saying this is a young team on the incline built around a superstar player. Which is so much better than the press we were getting before the lockout."
Winning will be the ultimate antidote, he said, predicting that the Capitals are two years from having an "acceptable" season-ticket base.
On ice, the league sought to create a faster game in which creativity, not thuggery, would be rewarded. Rule changes included tighter calling of penalties, smaller goalie pads, the acceptance of two-line passes and the addition of shootouts to break ties.
Scoring was way up early in the season, but tailed off slightly as fatigue set in and clever coaches devised counters for the liberated offenses.
Buccigross said he also saw referees grow more lenient on cross-checking and defensive holding, the enemies of offense. He hopes such obstruction won't be tolerated in the playoffs.
Nonetheless, 14 players reached or exceeded 90 points compared to only one in 2003-04. Eight teams averaged more goals per game than the highest-scoring team that season.
Six of the top 10 scorers were 25 or younger. Washington's Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby were the leading lights of the youth movement. Many NHL observers couldn't remember seeing such an exciting pair enter the league at the same time.
Ovechkin used impressive speed and power to score 52 goals, many of them jaw-dropping. "He might be one of the top five athletes ever to play hockey," Buccigross said.
Leonsis called the 20-year-old Russian one of the five most exciting athletes in any sport. "And he's the kind who brings the team together instead of fracturing it," the owner said.
Crosby became the youngest player to score 100 points in a season. The 18-year-old Canadian lived up to the most brutal expectations imaginable. He lifted Pittsburgh from the bottom of the league in attendance to the middle of the pack.
"Crosby's vision is right there with [Wayne] Gretzky's," Buccigross said. "When he matures physically, he could be a guy who gets 60 goals, 100 assists."
From a competitive standpoint, only nine wins separated the best team in the Eastern Conference, Ottawa, from the last playoff entry, Tampa Bay. Many experts are picking the defending champion Lightning to beat the Senators in the first round. Other tight playoff matchups include the New Jersey Devils against the resurgent New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers against the Buffalo Sabres.
But all the regional excitement did not translate to even decent national television ratings. Games on Comcast-owned OLN averaged an 0.2 rating.
The season was the first in a three-year, $207 million deal the league signed with OLN. The NHL turned to the network after ESPN declined a $60 million option to carry games. OLN is available in about 63 million households compared to 90 million for ESPN, and that lack of exposure will continue to hurt the league, television experts said.
The one hockey story that unquestionably drew the eyes of the nation was an unpleasant one: Phoenix Coyotes assistant Rick Tocchet and Janet Jones, the wife of Phoenix coach and NHL legend Gretzky, were linked to an illegal gambling ring.
Hockey lovers have wondered for generations why the sport doesn't draw higher ratings. Theories abound. Most American kids don't grow up in cold climates. The sport's tradition springs from Canada so there's no legacy of American fathers passing the game to their sons. The puck is hard to follow.
"It's just never transformed itself well as a television sport," Gutkowski said. "Maybe it never will. For the average fan, it's just never translated into an interesting television experience. It's unfortunate."
Few predict a sudden upswing in national television interest. But Leonsis said the deal with OLN is more of a long-term play. "I'll bet on Comcast," he said. "They'll get carriage. They'll get it right. It's better to be a big fish in a little pond and be the one they build around than to be a second-class citizen."
Leonsis believes the proliferation of high-definition television, the success of big-market teams such as the Rangers, and budding rivalries between young stars all bode well for the league's television future.
"The only way for them to get better ratings is to put attractive stars in attractive markets and grab the attention of casual fans," Gutkowski said.
He said a player like Crosby, with his youth, good looks and flashy skills, could be an excellent marketing vehicle but will be limited by playing in a low-key city like Pittsburgh. "But there's no way to force it," Gutkowski said.
He compared the NHL to NASCAR, a regional attraction that developed a national profile through savvy marketing of its star drivers. But the racing league had a big advantage because its stars are American.
"You have a lot of foreign players wearing helmets, and that's never going to be great for ratings or marketing," Gutkowski said.
Many argue that the NHL can be perfectly successful - if not incredibly rich like the NFL - based on revenues from attendance and local television and sponsorship deals. The new labor deal, which imposed the strictest salary cap in sports, was designed to make that business model viable in every NHL city.
Leonsis, for example, said he lost $30 million a year under the pre-lockout structure but will come close to breaking even under the new deal.
"As long as we keep the business model appropriate, so we don't grow the payroll as if we have a big TV deal in place, we'll be OK," he said.