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:

The TV deal

When was the last time the NHL had anything resembling visibility? Try 2004.

Just before the lockout cost it a full season, the NHL and Disney ( DIS) had a deal that allowed ESPN to show games during the week and to give folks such as Barry Melrose and John Buccigross actual jobs instead of just trucking them out for the occasional SportsCenter segment. Disney broadcast playoff games and the Stanley Cup Finals on ABC and all was right with the world.

Until it wasn't. After the lockout, the folks at ESPN began forming their position that hockey wasn't a "real" sport that merited coverage. The Worldwide Sports Leader was getting money and interest from more lucrative sports and couldn't be bothered to expend airtime on a league that just scotched its whole season and failed to award a Stanley Cup for the first time since 1919. With few other options, the league jumped to the Outdoor Life Network in a move roundly criticized as a trip to sports purgatory.

For a league with a knack for bumbling itself into terrible positions more often than not, the NHL accidentally made the best decision of its post-lockout life. Outdoor Life became Comcast-owned Versus. After Comcast> ( CMCSA) merged with NBC, Versus was rebranded as the NBC Sports Network and folded into the network's expanding sports coverage. Last year, NBC paid $2 billion for 10 years of NHL coverage. That's couch change compared with the $1.9 billion ESPN is paying per year to broadcast Monday Night Football alone, but it's triple what the league was getting in rights fees before.

Fans, meanwhile, can catch games on an easy-to-find network and have access to every game of the NHL playoffs through NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC. While ratings are still a fraction of those posted by other sports, the 392,000 viewers per game that the NHL averaged last season was its highest viewership since the 1993-94 season, when the New York Rangers were on their way to the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 54 years and games were broadcast on ESPN and ESPN 2.

The NHL hasn't done a whole lot right in the past 20 years, but that one post-lockout move to an unpopular network may have saved the league from being flung to some far corner of the ESPN spectrum.

More outdoor games

In 2003, the NHL took a chance and hosted a game between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. The result was a 4-3 win for the Canadiens in front of a crowd of 57,167, but the grand conclusion of the experiment was that an outdoor game not only worked, but brought a whole bunch of people out to watch.

It took the league a painful five years to try it again, but on Jan. 1, 2008, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., the snow fell, the goalies wore knit hats, the rink crew came prepared with shovels, and Sidney Crosby gave the Pittsburgh Penguins the win over the Buffalo Sabres in front of 71,217.

Afterward, every NHL town wanted an outdoor game and even casual hockey fans made time on New Year's Day to watch the games. The last Winter Classic matchup between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Ballpark in 2011 drew 3.74 million viewers. That was the fifth most-watched NHL game since 1975. A year earlier, when weather at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh forced the league to move the Winter Classic to prime time, 4.57 million people tuned in.

During last year's lockout, fans didn't bemoan the loss of early regular season games nearly as much as they mourned the loss of the Winter Classic matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was too much collateral damage and, ultimately, helped the league and its players salvage a shortened season.

This year, Ann Arbor gets its long-awaited Winter Classic as NHL fans get a total of six outdoor games. The 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium series starts Jan. 24 at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles with a matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks before moving to New York to Jan. 26 and 29 as the Rangers host the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders, respectively, at Yankee Stadium. On March 1 in Chicago, the site of the 2009 Winter Classic, the reigning NHL Champion Blackhawks host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field. That's followed March 2, when the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators take the outdoor ice at Vancouver's BC Place for the Heritage Classic.

Will all those games dilute the Winter Classic's appeal? Doubtful. Of the six most-watched NHL games of the past 27 year, five are Winter Classics. The game's New Year's Day date gives it some extra help, while the Stadium Series matchups only fuel large markets' appetite for outdoor matchups. Given the host cities' responses to outdoor games, it's a tough opportunity for the NHL to pass up.

Realignment

Four divisions, two conferences. It'll mean more rivalry games, every team playing in every arena every season and, aside from the Florida teams, geographically contiguous divisions.

This is where the die-hards scowl and start longing for the days of the old Patrick and Norris divisions, but where just about every hockey fan not in the Chicagoland or Detroit areas breathes a sigh of relief. Here's the short version: The NHL had six divisions and two conferences, it's now down to four divisions and two conferences.

Why? Mostly because you had a handful of teams doing a disproportionate amount of traveling between time zones. The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets were the only two teams in the Eastern time zone playing in the league's Western Conference. This meant fans were routinely subject to obnoxiously late start times for away games as their teams logged a whole lot of travel miles.

The Winnipeg Jets, meanwhile, were still stuck playing teams based predominantly in the East after the franchise moved from Atlanta in 2011. The Dallas Stars didn't have it much easier, as their division foes were well to the West. That's all changed under the current alignment shifting the Blue Jackets into the Metropolitan Division with the nearby Pittsburgh Penguins and the Red Wings into the Atlantic with its old rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs and closer competitors in Ottawa and Buffalo. Dallas and Winnipeg now share space in the Central with Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Nashville and Colorado. Meanwhile, shifting the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks into the same division in the Pacific should create some friction between the playoff rivals.

Some facets of this change still don't smell quite right. Blackhawks and Red Wings fans aren't thrilled about their rivalry being minimized, while the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers are still wondering why they have to leapfrog the entire Metropolitan Division to get to their rivals in the Atlantic. With Quebec City already starting work on an NHL arena, it would be hard to blame cynical fans for wondering whether the league foresees one of the Florida clubs heading north in the near future. Also, with each division in the Western Conference one team lighter than their counterparts in the East, there are still unanswered questions about possible expansion into NHL-ready towns including Kansas City, Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

What we do know, however, is that this whole alignment is going to make the playoffs a lot more interesting. The top three teams from each division make it in, the last four teams consist of the two teams with the most points in each conference. Basically, a weak division can send just three teams while its stronger counterpart sends five. The league's adding a wildcard system that should benefit division champs a bit, but all of it could be moot in two years when the NHL re-evaluates the whole thing.

Seth Jones

We've made a bunch of allusions to the NHL's relative Gilded Age in the '90s, but there's one big part of that equation that we haven't mentioned: U.S. players.

With no offense meant to folks such as Zach Parise and Tim Thomas, the number of U.S. superstars in the league is nowhere near the level it was 20 years ago. At that time, players including Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Brett Hull (we know where he was born, but his Olympics and World Cup of Hockey sweaters read "USA"), Mike Modano, Brian Leetch, Keith Tkachuck, Kevin Stevens, John LeClair, Chris Chelios and Mike Richter made the sport accessible to U.S. fans and drew a direct lineage from the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" Olympic team that got many hockey-loving kids south of Canada hooked in the first place.

Despite the proliferation of rinks, leagues and other infrastructure that made hockey more accessible in the U.S. as the sport expanded south, U.S. players faded from superstardom and gave way to Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk and other great but decidedly foreign players.

Last year in Portland, Ore., fans in the know got a sense that all that was changing. Seth Jones, son of former NBA player Popeye Jones and born at the peak of the last hockey boom in 1994, picked up hockey in Denver while his dad was playing for the Nuggets. Words of advice from future Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Sakic led to his first skating lessons, while a seat at Game 7 of the Colorado Avalanche's 2001 Stanley Cup win gave him a taste for the sport.

Earlier this year, the now highly coveted Jones helped push the U.S. to gold in the World Junior Championships. Later, he guided junior hockey's Portland Winterhawks to the Western Hockey League championship and took the league's Rookie of the Year honors with 14 goals and 42 assists. For his efforts, the Nashville Predators made him the No. 4 overall pick in the first round of this year's draft, the first defenseman taken overall and the first of only three players from the U.S. taken in the first round.

That drew the attention of Jay-Z, who told the New York Post that he'd like to add Jones to the stable of his new Roc Nation sports agency and "be involved in the star's marketing and branding."

Having seen what Jones can do firsthand here in Portland, we're convinced he has the ability to be a scoring defenseman the likes of which the U.S. hasn't seen since Leetch. Unlike the soft-spoken, reserved Ranger, however, Jones has the opportunity to draw star power: greater than players including the Bruins' Zdeno Chara, the Blackhawks' Duncan Keith and Montreal's P.K. Subban -- all of whom rank among the best defenders in the game.

At a time U.S. hockey could use its Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or even its own version of the NBA's LeBron James, Jones represents its best home in a good, long time.

NHL '94 returns in NHL '14

Perhaps just as important as what was happening on the ice 20 years ago was the NHL experience that Electronic Arts ( ERTS) was creating off it.

EA's NHL '94 was not only a video game milestone, but a cultural touchstone for a whole generation of gamers and sports fans. Its blue ice, organ music, stiff-armed goal celebrations and pixelated graphics are seared into the memory of just about any member of Generation X who ever owned a Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo game console.

If you loved to cut and deke through defenses as Jeremy Roenick, crank long-range goals as the New Jersey Devils' Darren Richer or pick the Toronto Maple Leafs' Tie Domi just to make Wayne Gretzky's head bleed Swingers style, there's a strong chance you still don't think a better hockey video game has ever been created. In some ways, EA agrees.

With recent incarnations of its NHL series derided as bland and overly technical, EA decided to include an NHL '94 mode in its latest game and bring the experience into the Sony PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 era just as it ends. The gameplay is just as fast, the physics make the checks and dekes a bit more believable, but the important stuff such ass the star-shaped indicators and retro players including Roenick, Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are all still there. Unlike the original, however, you're actually allowed to drop the gloves and fight in this one.

Times may have changed a bit, but the formula for bringing Gen X back to hockey still involves NHL '94.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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