There were fears the economic recession would leave swaths of empty seats in NHL arenas during the playoffs, but the league says both attendance and U.S. Television ratings are up through the first round.
With fans flocking back to see good teams with star players in Chicago and Boston, the NHL says its rinks were full to 100.9 per cent capacity through the 44 first-round games, its highest figure in 16 years.
Only four games - two in Carolina and two in Anaheim - failed to sell out.
It also reports a 22 per cent increase in viewers on the Versus network in the U.S., which averaged a 0.44 cable rating, or 333,163 households and 442,301 viewers.
The numbers are paltry compared to major U.S. sports like NFL football and Major League Baseball, but are cause for optimism in the NHL, which now recognizes that it is mostly a regional, rather than a national, attraction south of the border.
"This year has been a bit of breakthrough," NHL chief operating officer John Collins said this week. "The big market teams - Chicago, Boston, Washington - those are markets that drive ratings and are markets that are performing well during the playoffs."
It was a game between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on NBC on April 19 that did best - a 1.3 rating, or 1,542,710 households and 2,223,151 viewers. The league called it the most-watched NHL conference quarter-final game on "over-the-air" TV since 2001, up 63 per cent from a comparable NBC game last year.
Regional networks like MSG in New York, NESN in Boston and Fox Sports in Detroit also reported ratings jumps.
In Canada, TSN reported record audiences for its first round broadcasts, as they lucked out with the Calgary-Chicago series as well as two that went to Game 7 showdowns - New York Rangers-Washington and New Jersey-Carolina.
TSN said ratings jumped 42 per cent from last year to an average of 567,000 viewers, beating the 440,000 who watched first round games in 1992.
The NHL reported that the CBC's ratings dipped 18 per cent, largely because the three Canadian teams played four fewer games than the three who made the playoffs a year ago.
French-language RDS dropped 49 per cent as the Montreal Canadiens were swept in four games by Boston, after beating the Bruins in seven games last year.
NHL numbers tend to be rosy. It reported a record 21.4 million fans watched games in its 30 arenas this season, even though there were swaths of empty seats on most nights in Florida, Phoenix and other, mostly southern U.S., cities. Full houses in Chicago and Boston certainly helped.
The idea of expanding in the 1990s to non-traditional hockey markets was aimed at landing the kind of multi-million dollar national TV contract that drives the NFL, the NBA and other major sports, but that never came.
Versus is a cable channel with limited reach, while NBC carries few games.
Collins, who joined the NHL in 2006 after 15 years in the NFL, plus a stint with the Cleveland Browns, says it is now clear that hockey in the U.S. is sold locally, but there are ways to draw national attention.
"The business is very much local/regional and what we're looking to do is build some incremental value on top of that regional business," he said.
That includes events like the annual Jan. 1 outdoor game called the Winter Classic, the all-star game and the season-opening games in Europe.
They have also made the draft into a prime time event and this year will move the awards night from Toronto to Las Vegas.
Collins said the league also reaches out to "displaced" fans spread around the U.S., such as a Red Wings fan who lives in Arizona or a Rangers fan in Florida, through its Center Ice TV package and Game Center Live on its website, NHL.com.
Game Center offers up to four games per night either via pay-per-view, or for a yearly subscription fee. Viewers can not only watch more than one game at a time on split screen, but have access to statistics and other information while they watch.
Without providing figures, the league says Game Center revenue is up 92 per cent from last year and the number of subscriptions is up 42 per cent.
It said U.S. visitors are up 12 per cent on NHL.com, where 89 per cent more videos are being watched.
Collins said independent research has shown that hockey fans in the U.S. tend to be younger, more affluent and more comfortable with technology than fans of other major sports, so the league is trying to build on that with more online and wireless products.
They also have Bell Mobile, on which fans can get updated scores and highlights on their cellphones.
"Our younger, more tech-savvy viewers are more fluent with that than someone who has grown up watching on TV," he said. "We're the premier league in an international sport.
"We look at the digital space and we say we have every reason to go hard after this affluent, tech-savvy fan base and we can do it, where the NFL can't because the NFL is built off a national broadcast rights model, where they just want everyone to sit in front of their TV screen and watch for six or 12 hours on Sunday.
"We're a different model. There are 1,230 games. They all have importance locally, they don't all have as much importance nationally. We're trying to build a national layer that sits on top of this incredibly healthy local business. Hopefully, we're seeing the beginning of an incline in these playoffs."