Consider for a moment there almost was no National Hockey League season.
It looked for a long time like there would be no action on the ice during the 2012-13 campaign, and hardcore hockey fans would turn away from the league if and when play resumed.
Reports of the NHL’s death were greatly exaggerated.
As the conference finals for the playoffs approach, consider this fact. The last four teams alive in postseason play – the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks – were the last four Stanley Cup Winners.
The NHL could not have planned it better. Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago are three of the biggest TV markets in the United States. The fourth, Pittsburgh, is not even in the top 20 as far as market size, but the Penguins have done an awful lot over the last decade to remind the country Pittsburgh is more than just a football town.
The Kings were last year’s Stanley Cup champions, and they are certainly no one-hit wonders. The Bruins, Penguins and Blackhawks have rich NHL history and tradition behind them, and it should make for an exciting semifinal round.
Ratings for the games on niche channels like the NBC Sports Network have been higher than last year. The Detroit-Chicago series drew an average of 3.4 million viewers for Game 7, and that number rose to around 4.5 million in the game’s climactic moments. Those are ratings higher than ones the NBA has put up for some of its playoff games this year.
Hardcore sports fans will argue hockey does not deserve a Big Four ranking among professional sports. It used to be baseball, football, basketball and hockey, but car enthusiasts have said NASCAR supplanted hockey a long time ago. With ratings like these, the arguments are sure to continue.
Right now, the NBA is looking at these ratings and praying the Miami Heat make it to the NBA Finals. If the Indiana Pacers turn around and knock off the Heat in seven games, it will be an Indiana-San Antonio final, which is a matchup of the 26th and 36th-largest TV markets in the country, according to the Nielsen media company. Miami is only 16th, but the Heat have a following across the country thanks to the tandem of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. An Indiana-San Antonio final could mean depressed ratings and lower prices for commercial time in the future.
Contrast this with the upward movement of the NHL. With the lockout extending into January, conventional thought had the league struggling to maintain its status as a niche sport while luring back fans that walked away.
Ratings for the conference semifinal games, and by extension the Stanley Cup finals, should be higher than some years because of more traditional teams involved in the process. That should help the NHL gain more visibility in the crowded June sports scene, which includes the U.S. Open golf tournament, the Major League Baseball season, and the NBA Finals.
It is not a bad way for the NHL to end its season. With labor peace on the horizon for several more years, the league can use higher ratings to build visibility, regain its Big Four status and build a sustainable fan base.
Fans in those four cities cannot wait for the puck to drop.