Take THAT, Canada! Hockey in U.S. on the rise

Who says the United States doesn't have good hockey fans? I mean sure, traditional hockey markets like Boston and Minnesota have always been the exection to that accusation. But this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs -- and the money spent in non-traditional markets -- seem to prove that hockey ain't just for the cold weather cities with funny accents anymore.

The NHL announced this week the Stanley Cup Playoffs attracted that largest audience in the sport's history pulling in record television ratings and online activity.

The league's TV surge was capped by Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals in which the Chicago Blackhawks handledthe Philadelphia Flyers to take home the championship. The June 9 broadcast on NBC was the most-watched NHL game in the United States in 36 years with 8.28 million viewers.

Some other TV goodies from the NHL: it was also the highest-rated NHL game (a 4.7 rating) on U.S. television in that span; the highest audience for an all-U.S. Final in Canadian television history;and the most-watched first two rounds on U.S. cable in history.

The NHL also says in its release that television and online activity grew in non-traditional markets like New Orleans, Denver and San Diego.

In Chicago, an estimated two million people attended the Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup parade on Friday more than the estimated half-million that watched the White Sox World Series parade in 2005 as well as any victory parade for the Bulls in the 1980's and 90's.

Have I overloaded you with numbers yet?

Here's the point -- while I'm not saying the NHL is anywhere near taking on baseball or football in America, its gained an audience in recent years thanks to stars like the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin and the Penguins' Sidney Crosby. Add the fact that the game rules were adjusted to incite more scoring and faster play and you've got something thats more exciting to a younger audience and action that relates better on television.

And those two things are keys to a sports' growth, at least in this country. For a counter example, in my coverage of horse racing in Maryland, young people and television are the two things the sport didn't adapt for. It shunned television for years, thinking it would keep people from coming to the track. Meanwhile then-burgeoning leagues like NASCAR and the NBA made television networks and sponsorship their best friends. Who looks like the dummy now?

Young people have also left horse racing in Maryland (on most days Laurel Park is a glorified retirement facility) because the track facility isn't modern and there's nothing else to do there except horse racing. And that's just not something that goes over well with this ADD generation. One look at tracks in Pennsylvania, where 20-somethings get dolled up on Saturday nights to gamble at the racinos, and it's easy to see what makes the difference.

So, kudos to the NHL for having the courage to adapt to changing times and market its players smartly -- it's living proof that when you take that risk, it pays dividends.