When hockey-mad cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago all reached the finals, though, the ratings soared. The Blackhawks-Flyers series in 2010 on NBC/Versus averaged 5.167 million viewers, the highest for the finals since 2002, Nielsen said.

The NHL is coming off its sixth consecutive year of record revenue, with a projection of more than $3.2 billion by the end of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, the league said.

Don't forget, the NHL has a $2 billion, 10-year deal with NBC Sports Group through the 2020-21 season.

"Our fan support coming back last time was outstanding and we were probably a little bit surprised to see how good it was," Adams said. "That speaks to how much the fans love the game."

The NHL clearly caught some breaks coming out of the last lockout.

The league marketed its comeback around rising stars like Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin. They added fan-friendly shootouts and the New Year's Day Winter Classic. The league made the two-line pass legal to help bust up the neutral-zone trap and created chic commercials to appeal more toward casual fans.

This time â¿¿ whenever the lockout ends â¿¿ the league might be all out of tricks. They'll need to dig. And it could take years to recover from the wreckage.

Some teams are trying to keep their brand alive among an increasingly uninterested public. The Flyers aired classic games and brought back former stars for autograph signings at a sports bar in the same complex as the Wells Fargo Center.

Gerry Helper, special assistant to the president and senior vice president for the Nashville Predators, said the team enjoyed their best season ticket renewal year in franchise history this past offseason.

The Predators have stayed aggressive in developing benefits packages for season ticketholders during the work stoppage. They organized "Preds Pride Day" activities and something called a "Smashmob" for a youth hockey game last month where they brought their public address announcer and mascot, and created a Predators' game-like atmosphere. Helper wrote in an email to The AP the Predators have stayed in touch with season ticket holders via email and phone.

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