SUN Hockey Pool

It's the National Hot League again

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

Yes, billions can be wrong, as evidenced by the confounding number of people watching World Cup soccer.

However, before humanity’s answer to insomnia took South Africa by storm with a series of scintillating scoreless draws, the hockey world capped off a wildly successful season of its own that caught the eye of a record number of fans. The difference being the scores of Americans who’ve finally started to notice hockey again have actually got it right.

Apparently, for the first time in ages, you didn’t have to be a savvy hockey fan (a.k.a. a Canadian) to realize the NHL is now producing some of the most entertaining hockey we’ve seen since the inception of the Tuuk blade.

Even Americans, who’d have an easier time finding a BP executive than a hockey game buried on Versus, stood up and took notice of a game too cool to ignore anymore.

Starting perhaps with the Winter Classic at Fenway Park, moving to the Olympic tourney staged in a perfect setting and ending with a playoff that had more storylines than a Ben Roethlisberger pub crawl, it appears the NHL has finally rebounded from the lockout of 2004-05 and is actually gaining momentum.

Oh sure, it helps that the Americans landed in the gold-medal game and teams from two traditional hockey markets starved for Stanley Cup glory landed in the final.

But at the end of the day, the product is what sells NHL hockey, and right now, the speed and skill of the game has helped make it hotter than the Slap Chop.

No matter how you measure increased interest and success, the NHL racked up some pretty impressive numbers via TV ratings, internet activity, merchandise sales and attendance.

Take, for example, the Stanley Cup parade, which drew an estimated two-million people, according to City of Chicago officials.

Granted, it was 49 years in the making, but the crowd was about a half-million more than the White Sox drew for their 2005 World Series parade, and more than Michael Jordan’s Bulls managed to attract when celebrating any of their titles in the ’80s and ’90s.

The shift in attitude that saw 5,000 people in the United Centre just four years ago is symbolic of the growth the game is experiencing overall. Case in point:

* Game 6 of the final on NBC was the most-watched NHL game on U.S. TV in 36 years, with 8.28 million viewers.

* CBC’s Game 6 coverage averaged 4.077 million viewers, the network’s biggest audience ever for an all-U.S. Stanley Cup final. Overall, playoff viewership on CBC was up 62% from 2009.

* TSN drew 70% more playoff viewers than the previous year, aided in part by Montreal’s upset over Washington in Game 7 of the first round — the network’s largest NHL audience ever at 2.8 million.

* April was the most trafficked month in the history of NHL.com, with more than 17 million unique visitors.

* The league’s History will be Made campaign was watched 3.2 million times on the league website and got five million views on Youtube for fan-created versions.

* In the two days before the Cup-clincher, five of the top-20 Google searches were Stanley Cup-related.

* Total NHL merchandise sales for the entire playoffs were up 22%. Shop.NHL.com had its best single-day sales total the day after the Hawks won the Cup, surpassing the previous record by 25%.

* Both the Hawks and Bruins enjoyed regional TV numbers that outdrew the city’s baseball and basketball counterparts on nights their action coincided, including games featuring LeBron James and a Yankees/Bosox duel that was dwarfed by the Bruins number on Versus.

MediaWeek referred to the NHL as National Hot League, the Associated Press figures “the NHL hit the popularity jackpot,” and the L.A. Times, which stopped sending NHL beat reporters with the Kings a few years back, conceded “hockey is having its day.”

If only the players started faking injuries, complaining about crowd noise and limiting shots on goal to under five, maybe the NHL could rival the World Cup in popularity.

eric.francis@sunmedia.ca


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