It was just over two months ago that America sat transfixed watching the gold medal hockey game in the 2010 Olympics. That game was supposed to change so much.
More than 27 million Americans witnessed the U.S. and Canada fight in an emotional and physical contest spiked with chewy patriotism. After Canada's 3-2 overtime victory, many in the media believed the interest from that contest would draw the casual fan to hockey and resuscitate a dying sport.
|Montreal's Round 1 upset of the top-seeded Capitals was compelling theater. (Getty Images)|
The NHL playoffs have actually been outstanding to watch. They've outdone the NBA's playoffs for drama and in some ways are better than the early rounds of last year's NFL postseason. Plus, as far as we know, hockey doesn't have its own version of troglodytic asshat Ben Roethlisberger dragging the image of the sport into a toilet.
Still, despite a great postseason, few are watching hockey nationally and the post-Olympic bump that was supposed to help has been a molehill, not a mountain. It's a sad statement on how most of this country really feels about hockey and unfortunately that statement is, "Who cares?"
I'm not certain how it happened and don't know if it was possible for the NHL to stop it from happening but that once-captured post-Olympic hockey glow is now gone. It has dissipated into the ozone and the NHL is back to being ignored by most sports fans.
Oh, sure, you'll read stories saying the NHL's viewership is up, but "up" is a relative term when it comes to hockey ratings. The NHL recently announced that playoff games on NBC and Versus combined for 742,000 viewers. In 2000, around the same time period and with no U.S.-Canada Olympic bump, there were 750,000 watching on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2. Basically, over the past 10 years, national hockey viewership has remained steadily low.
Some ratings in local markets do well but national numbers are key to a sport's prosperity and survival. Those numbers rarely exceed 1.0 so most hockey playoff games get beat by cable reruns of Mr. Belvedere and Homeboys in Outer Space.
According to Nielsen, this past week SpongeBob SquarePants had 3.66 million viewers. So a cartoon that looked like it was dreamed up by someone with a meth addiction had millions more watchers than the NHL playoffs.
The Penguins of Madagascar had more than two million viewers. Notice, the penguins specifically getting the high ratings aren't the ones from Pittsburgh.
Nielsen also reported that of the top 15 cable shows from April 26-May 2, five of them were NBA playoff games with the highest-rated being Boston-Cleveland on TNT. While the NBA playoffs have had their moments, most games consisted of blowouts.
There are various reasons why casual sports fans don't watch the NHL and they've all been stated before. But the most important bears repeating: Sports fans are demanding exuberant offensive displays. The NFL and NBA recognized this long ago and started adjusting their rules so offenses dominated and scores were high.
The NHL added changes to promote more power plays and shootouts but the league is still not fast-paced enough and there remain too many stoppages (the opposite of Olympic play).
Hockey, for the most part, has been slow to adapt to the public's desire for offensive explosions and the sport has paid for it (in some ways so has major league baseball).
More importantly, Americans are attention- and time-challenged. We're busy. We prioritize. We Tweet. We have our normal viewing habits and sports like hockey have failed to force a change in those habits and give the NHL a chance.
The Olympics were supposed to ignite NHL interest but the facts show that basically hasn't happened.
Despite the protestations of the NHL about increased TV ratings, the sport remains largely ignored by the general public.
If the NHL can't get fans to watch now, only a few months removed from one of the more exciting moments in recent hockey history, then it never will.