FILE- This Feb. 12, 2010 file photo shows Wayne Gretzky waving to the crowd after lighting the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremonies at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C. \\"When you see the Olympic Games,\\" said Gretzky, \\"and how hard they play, and how much they care, and how happy they are when they win, and how devastated they are when they lose, and they\'re not getting paid any money for it _ people really take a grasp of that and say, \'You know what? I love the fact these guys play the game because they love it.\'\\" THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
NEW YORK, N.Y. - Wayne Gretzky loved many things about the Canada-United States gold medal hockey game in Vancouver—including the message it sent to every fan who has wondered, "Are they playing for the money or are they playing for the sport?"
"When you see the Olympic Games," he said, "and how hard they play, and how much they care, and how happy they are when they win, and how devastated they are when they lose, and they're not getting paid any money for it—people really take a grasp of that and say, 'You know what? I love the fact these guys play the game because they love it.'"
The good vibes have rolled on for hockey through the Stanley Cup playoffs. The first two rounds averaged 886,000 viewers per game in the U.S., up 19 per cent from last year and the most since 1997—in other words, since before the lockout.
"We had a lot of momentum going into the Olympics," NHL chief operating officer John Collins said, "and a lot coming out of the Olympics."
Numbers are up in Canada as well. CBC's coverage of the second round has averaged 2.659 viewers, up 94 per cent from last season, while TSN has averaged 1.1 million viewers in the second round, a 61 per cent increase from last year.
The league's comeback from that lost season in 2004-05 was slowed by some bad luck. The next two Stanley Cup finals were Carolina-Edmonton and Anaheim-Ottawa, teams that weren't exactly going to draw in the casual fan.
But as fortunes have shifted so have TV ratings. The league is coming off two straight Red Wings-Penguins showdowns and that dramatic Olympic tournament capped by the thrilling final between the two North American teams. The second round of this year's playoffs was full of large-market, tradition-rich, star-laden franchises—and it doesn't hurt that 10 of the 12 series so far this post-season have gone at least six games.
"We've had some fantastic luck with series going seven games and some unbelievable story lines," said Jamie Davis, president of NHL cable partner Versus.
The first two rounds on Versus averaged the most viewers for cable coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs since Nielsen started keeping track in 1994. With Versus in its fifth year of its NHL deal, more fans now know where to find the network, Davis said.
The NHL proudly notes that on May 7, when the Bruins and Celtics both had playoff games and the Red Sox were facing the Yankees, it was the hockey game that drew the most viewers in the Boston area. Game 4 of the Bruins-Flyers series attracted 328,000 viewers on Versus, the baseball game on local network NESN had 223,000, and Cavaliers-Celtics Game 3 averaged 142,000 on ESPN.
Hockey's strong comeback still leaves it behind other sports in the national ratings—the NBA playoffs are averaging almost 3.9 million viewers per game through the first two rounds. But it's clear the league has moved far beyond the doldrums of the lockout.
"Everyone was saying hockey was dead," Davis said.
Sponsorship revenue is up even in a tough economy, and the NHL finds itself in a much stronger bargaining position going into its next TV contracts.
The apparent boost from the Olympics on NHL ratings may not have much impact when the league decides whether to allow its players to compete in Sochi in 2014—in fact, it may prove one of commissioner Gary Bettman's concerns. He has questioned whether the NHL will benefit as much from a Winter Games in a distant time zone as from one in North America.
But for now, hockey is still riding the momentum of Vancouver.
"To a man, each and every person that I talked to after the Olympic Games, everyone remembered that game and remembered watching that game and how great a game it was," Gretzky told The Associated Press at the Gillette-EA Sports Champions of Gaming event in New York last month. "Obviously the U.S. people were disappointed they lost, but they were really thrilled by the fact it was such a great game.
"It was nothing but a positive for our sport, and that's what we need."