- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Late last spring the NHL caught a glimpse of the reward from four years of building momentum since a lockout erased a season and soiled the sport.

Two fantastic playoff series - epic wars fought over the course of seven battles pitting the game’s top stars - and several other juicy subplots made the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs among the best in league history.

Ovechkin-Crosby I and Pittsburgh-Detroit II were appointment viewing, and the NHL had the television ratings to support it. Hockey revivals in a pair of major markets, Chicago and Boston, added to a growing list of franchises in key metropolitan areas experiencing great on- and off-ice success.

Now the NHL has a new challenge as Year 5 A.L. (after lockout) approaches: How can the league build on the momentum created by last season’s stirring playoffs and further its imprint of the sports landscape in this country?

“Obviously you hope that good play and momentum continue, and the more exposure you get the more momentum you pick up and the more eyeballs come to the game,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “I think we want to ride the wave we have now and make it even bigger.”

From all accounts, the league’s resurgence has been supported by two major on-ice components - who is playing and how they are playing. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, the superstars of hockey transcended the sport. Guys who were known by one name - Orr, Espo, Gretzky, Messier and Mario - carried the previously regional league to new heights.

For a multitude of reasons, the biggest stars in the Dead Puck Era (from the first lockout in 1994-95 to the second in 2004-05) failed to connect with casual fans on the same level. They were at a disadvantage because of the style of play (more on that in a minute), but guys like Joe Sakic, Jeremy Roenick, Peter Forsberg and Sergei Fedorov never developed the same presence as the superstars before them.

That is not a problem anymore, or at least it shouldn’t be.

“I think our game is really good now, and we have really, really good young stars in the game,” Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “Certainly the crop of young stars that are in our game bodes well for not only like what happened last year but for years to come.”

Added Daly: “We have great young players now, and that is something where for a period of time we were probably counting too much on the veterans and not enough on the influx of new talent.”

Casual sports fans know the names Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin, even if they’ve never been to an NHL game or never found Versus on the channel guide. When their teams collided in late April, the Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin drama played out like a dream sequence for the NHL.

Ovechkin and Crosby carried their teams for two weeks, and in the end Malkin provided a little more assistance than Washington’s other young stars. The league now has a premier (American) rivalry to lean on, with its most marketable players involved.

“The clear message that came out of that series is that people really do care about individual players, and there is a way to market them and a way not to market them,” said Greg Wyshynski, editor of the Puck Daddy blog on Yahoo Sports. “In the mid-1990s they marketed skill and majesty and Peter Forsberg pirouetting through the offensive zone. But what people really care about is, ‘This guy hates this guy and here’s why and here’s why you need to watch.’ ”

Beyond the star power of the league’s best young players is the way those performers are able to showcase their skills. Casual fans were driven away from hockey in the late 1990s and early part of this decade because, quite frankly, it was boring. Defense-first strategy engulfed the league and sapped the enjoyment.

People may focus on the new financial system birthed by the collective bargaining agreement, but the rules overhaul may have actually had a bigger impact. Sure, the salary cap allows more teams to compete, and winning teams put people in the seats. But the way skill and speed have been injected back into the game is also paramount, and the positive impact on the fan experience cannot be understated.

“I think these past years since the lockout have been the best hockey there’s ever been,” Nashville general manager David Poile said. “I am a big proponent of the rule changes we made, and I think the game is in great shape.”

There have been several other advancements to aid the NHL’s resurgence. High-definition improves hockey on television more than any of the other major sports in this country. The league’s aggressive approach with catering to its online audience and the addition of the NHL Network in the United States has increased the viewing opportunities for fans.

Still, there are challenges that restrict the league almost like a glass ceiling. The feud between television partner Versus and DirecTV - the satellite company has dropped the network from its programming - threatens to keep nationally broadcast games from millions of potential viewers.

“It is a problem,” Daly said. “We want our fans to consume our sport. We want them to watch us on Versus, and DirecTV is a very significant distributor of ours and not carrying Versus is a big problem for us. They’re both our business partners, and we hope they get this resolved. We are urging and encouraging them to get this resolved.”

Then there are the big-picture problems with Versus itself. Yes, more people tuned in to the network to watch NHL games during the playoffs than ever before - and topped some of the lean years when the league was partnered with ESPN - but Versus still doesn’t carry nearly the brand recognition or provide the same level of potential that the company owned by Disney does.

“If these [playoff] games had been on ESPN, then what you’d get is throughout the day when people are tuning in to see Woody Paige yell at somebody, they’re going to see a promo for Caps-Penguins that night and then they’re going to watch it,” Wyshynski said. “The problem remains that no one watches Versus during the day unless they are a buck hunter. There’s your problem, and that’s what you lose by not being on ESPN.”

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