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5 Reasons This Is the Year to Watch the NHL

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- The most difficult part about being a fan of the National Hockey League is explaining to people who aren't into hockey just what the appeal is.

From a hockey fan's formative years, he or she has learned how to follow the puck, why the intricacies of the rulebook matter, what team to swear allegiance to and how to be a fan of the overall game despite said allegiance. Fans learn the value of a late West Coast game and a playoff game in its third overtime. They learn how to cope with loving a sport that fills the same buildings as National Basketball Association teams, but gets a fraction of the coverage or recognition.

NHL fans also know disappointment, frustration and outright rage. Until last year, the league was riding a seven-year streak of increasing revenue that had grown to $3.3 billion. In major league sports -- where the Major League Baseball brings in $8 billion in revenue and the National Football League generates $9.5 billion, including more cash from TV than the NHL creates from its entire operation -- that's not a whole lot.

Yet the NHL brings that pittance upon itself. Gary Bettman was named the league's first commissioner in 1993 and, by 1994, it would have its first player lockout. That cost the league 104 days of its season, shrank the schedule to 48 games from 84 and canceled the first of the 2,100 games that would be lost during Bettman's time at the help. The league lost television contracts with Fox (FOXA) and ESPN and moved franchises from Winnipeg, Quebec City and Minneapolis/St. Paul while planting teams in Phoenix, Ariz., Atlanta and an ambiguous portion of Florida.

It lost an entire season thanks to a lockout in 2004 and 2005 -- the first time in more than 85 years that the league didn't award a team the Stanley Cup -- and, learning nothing, threw away half of this past season and a highly anticipated New Year's outdoor game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium because of another labor dispute. Revenue dipped to $2.4 billion last year and Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, smelling blood in the water, poached New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuck a year after he helped that team to the Stanley Cup Final. The KHL is now trying to convince Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechikin to return to Dynamo Moscow, where he played during the last lockout.

Also, as Forbes noted before the most recent labor dispute, the NHL has only a handful of teams that make money. The Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers combined to make $212 million during the 2010-11 season; the other 25 teams lost $86 million.

So why should anyone who's not already a hockey fan get invested in the shambolic mess that is the NHL? Perhaps more importantly, why should a league that's had teams in the United States for nearly a century continue to woo non-fans who continually treat the sport as if it's some strange alien disc game played only by Krakens?

Because this is the year. We're not kidding. This is the first time in about 20 years that NHL hockey has a legitimate chance of crossing over into the mainstream sports consciousness, and we have five reasons why you should stop scoffing, put on a sweater and start believing:
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