America Has Hockey Fevah!

The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night. And for all the hand-wringing over the NHL’s woes over the past few years, it may shock you to learn that the final game between the Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers was the most-watched program in America two nights ago, and scored the NHL’s best ratings in 36 years. Not bad for a league many were ready to pronounce as good as dead after its endless 2004-2005 lockout. From Deadline:

With the Nielsen nationals in, The Stanley Cup Final Game 6 is officially the most-watched and highest-rated NHL Game in 36 years. It was watched by 8.3 million viewers and drew a 3.2/10 in adults 18-49. The four final games broadcast by NBC this year averaged 6.1 million viewers, the best network-TV series average in 13 years. The hockey game was the highest-rated program last night, edging out Fox's So You Think You Can Dance (3.0/9).

There are a couple of obvious reasons the ratings for this game were so high. First off, it was played between Philly and Chicago, two huge American media markets. Also, the Blackhawks are one of the NHL’s original six teams, and hadn’t won a title in 40 years. Also, the recent sea change to HDTVs has allowed the game to flourish on television. The wide screen allows you to see more of the rink, and the definition allows you to easily locate the puck (no FoxTrax necessary). The NHL also benefited from a brilliant Olympic final between the USA and Canada (won in overtime by Canada, but thrilling for American audiences nonetheless), and the advent of the Winter Classic, the annual outdoor game that garners great ratings for the league every New Year’s Day.

But there’s one overriding reason this year’s Stanley Cup soared, and that is the games were brilliant. This was unreasonably entertaining hockey. Virtually every game had that unmistakable quality of great NHL play: the idea that if you look away for just an instant, you’ll miss something fantastic. That’s what exciting hockey is all about, and this series had it in spades.

The NHL has suffered terribly in recent years from not having a home on ESPN. The league went to Versus, a cable channel that isn’t available on many systems (and was taken off of DirecTV altogether). Ratings on Versus for the league have increased during their three year contract. But that contract is up in 2011, and you can bet the league will make every effort to make their product available on a more prominent platform. A return to ESPN makes sense for everyone involved. Should that happen, the league instantly gets its high profile from the mid-1990’s back. Combine that with an improved on-ice product, and suddenly the future of the NHL looks very, very bright.

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