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The NHL's return to the ice brought fans back to the arenas in record numbers last season, but TV ratings continued to stagger. The question now is, can they turn this around? Illustration by Tim Bower.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is walking down a Manhattan street during his lunch break on a Monday afternoon in August when a stranger approaches him. "You're the commissioner, aren't you?" the man asks. "You know, during the lockout I was upset, but what you guys did last season, I want you to know I appreciate it." The man shakes the commissioner's hand and walks away.

For Bettman, the encounter is a subtle reminder that, despite all the trials and tribulations of the past few years, including the longest lockout in professional sports history, the NHL is back from its darkest hour. It wasn't supposed to turn out this way - at least not according to the experts who left the NHL for dead following the cancellation of the 2004-2005 season. Taking an entire year off from production is business suicide. But with rule changes generating more scoring and a salary cap creating more parity within the league, the NHL is more popular than ever, setting record numbers in attendance last season and blowing its projected revenue out of the water.

"One of the 'luxuries,' and I use that term in quotes, that occurred from a hockey operation standpoint during the work stoppage was the ability to focus on the game and what essential elements we could fix," Bettman says. "We knew that, over time, we'd alienate our fans if we didn't."

The question now, though, is, can the NHL - one season removed from its remarkable return to the ice - make a splash on the national television scene, where the real financial rewards are?

FOR YEARS, IT HAS BEEN the same anemic story for a league struggling to find an identity in the national TV market. The loyal local television fan base in a city such as St. Louis or Detroit fails to reach a city with no NHL ties - like Tulsa, where hockey is about as popular as bowling or drag racing. Meanwhile, the NFL, NBA, and MLB thrive with their lucrative national television contracts and are universally popular throughout the nation, regardless of the market. The NFL, considered the gold standard of the professional sports television industry, generates nearly twice as much in television revenue as the NHL does in total revenue.

Shawn Bradley, chief operating officer of the sports marketing firm the Bonham Group, believes part of the problem is that hockey isn't nearly as captivating on the small screen as it is in person. Bradley says the speed of the game entices a live audience but that on television, the game is actually less appealing than the other three sports. With pucks traveling at speeds of up to 100 mph and bouncing all over the rink, the game is difficult to follow within the confines of a living room.

"What can you do about that?" Bradley asks. "You're talking about something that's good for attendance and not so good for television. It's not something that can be changed."

Another part of the problem, according to Neal Pilson, president of the sports marketing firm Pilson Communications, is that hockey fans have little experience playing the sport compared with fans of the other three sports.

"One thing hockey deals with is that a lot of its fans have never played the game, so many of them aren't as knowledgeable [about] the game as, say, a basketball fan," he explains.

Pilson's comment is not a knock on hockey's fan base. The reality is that it's much cheaper to join the local YMCA basketball league than it is to join an organized hockey team. And it's much more convenient to shoot hoops or to throw a football around at the neighborhood park than it is to head to the nearest hockey rink and strap on the skates to practice a slap shot.

But the cause for alarm isn't so much that the NHL is the runt of the "Big Four" in ­national television appeal - the real cause for concern is that over the past few years the league has been losing its already minuscule national television audience. And last season was no different. In one of the most intriguing postseasons ever, the Edmonton Oilers became the first number-eight seed to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals; they came within one game of winning it all. Yet, NBC and Versus (formerly OLN) posted an abysmal average rating of 1.8 for the seven-game series. Game 2 of the Stanley Cup on Versus earned lower ratings than a rained-out­ baseball game on ESPN, and NBC's ratings for Game 7 were 21 percent lower than ABC's ratings for Game 7 in 2004.

"There's nothing that can seriously influence the ratings right now," Pilson says. "They might go up or down, depending on who's playing. If you have teams like Detroit, Chicago, or New York in the Stanley Cup, then, yes, you'll see the ratings go up some, but nothing that will stand out too much."

"I've heard people say that parity backfired, because a big-market team didn't make it to the finals," Versus president Gavin Harvey counters. "But the way I see it, we couldn't have asked for a better Stanley Cup, because it was the two best teams playing a competitive series that went seven games."