Big market success is bringing back the NHL

This originally appeared on Buffalo

Slowly but surely, the NHL is making a serious comeback on the national sports landscape. Even though ESPN continues their ignorant stance of pandering to sports in which they hold the rights to, the NHL is indeed becoming more relevant by the day.

After winning the 2011 Sports League of the Year award from Sports Business Journal, the NHL has enjoyed a calendar year of exciting games and some must-see events. Wise marketing put big ticket teams in the Winter Classic in consecutive seasons and the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals saw a winner from one of the largest cities in the US.

Things could get even better this summer as the Los Angeles Kings prepare for their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1993. The Kings will never own the city of Los Angeles. That would be a foolish assumption to make. However, they’re one of two teams left playing (Dodgers) and have the opportunity to bring a championship to the city.

This is one of those things that you want to root for as a hockey fan. Not as a Sabres fan, but a hockey fan. It is the same concept as understanding that Sidney Crosby’s health and success is good for the league, no matter how much you hate him. Right now the NHL is becoming a sexy ticket in Los Angeles, celebrities are taking notice and the team has a real chance at winning a title. A great majority of the people buying seats for the Finals are likely to ditch the bandwagon pretty quick, but there is going to be some serious interest drubbed up in LA for this team and the sport.

Creating new, casual and possibly a few die-hards is important in major cities. After the lost season in 2004-05, the NHL had a long way to go to rebuild. Now that the league has found solid footing, it is time to climb to the next level of the mountain. This doesn’t necessarily mean finding fans in non-traditional markets. This means creating a conversation on a national level.

Where the NHL fell off in the late 90s and early 2000s was with casual fans who became tired with the hockey being played in the dead puck era. Trying to stir up fans in non-traditional markets wasn’t the solution and, ultimately, that is where the NHL began losing traction. After the lockout, they were forced to gain all of that back and more.

So here we are. A year after a highly rated Stanley Cup Final, another season with record earnings and on the cusp of another season that could bring more good fortune to the NHL. Of course, avoiding another debilitating lockout is going to be necessary to keep the good fortune going. I wish that was more of a long term worry, but it isn’t. I’d love to say that you don’t need to worry about it and just enjoy a Stanley Cup Final in which the nation’s two major media markets are involved. But I can’t.

Sources say that labor (or labour) talks will begin soon, so obviously the league and player’s association are well aware of what is at stake with this upcoming CBA. I have faith that both sides will be able to work things out prior to the beginning of next season. It has to be resolved if the popularity of the NHL is to continue to blossom.

Even with the argument that goal scoring is decreasing (it is), the game of hockey is continuing to creep into more living rooms. The 2010 Olympics played a big part in this trend and the success of marketable teams added to it. Now the Kings are next in line to potentially rope in another large market of hockey fans.

Once again, LA will never be hockey mad like Buffalo. However, capping this run will do wonders for the popularity of the game in Southern California. At the end of the day, teams in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles are falling back into favor with the population and that means very good things for the sport and the league.

Who cares if ESPN is going to keep ignoring the sport? Obviously the relationship with Comcast and NBC is going to continue injecting a sport that is growing in popularity into the lifestyle of people across the country. Hockey is on its way back, just wait and see.

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