ATLANTA — Hockey is a game of passion and sacrifice played out on ice. But by last year's NHL player lockout, the fan-crazed sport once known as the "Montreal game" had become unbearably dull. One Canadian hockey writer knew something was wrong when he switched off the Stanley Cup playoffs to watch Martha Stewart bake chocolate chip cookies.
But this week's meeting between the Edmonton Oilers and the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup final marks a quiet return to old-school hockey: open-ice skating and high drama around the net. What's more, this first post-lockout season offers poignant lessons about what works, and what doesn't, for a rough-and-tumble league vying, perhaps in vain, to compete with basketball, football, and baseball for sports fans' attention.
One lesson may be the National Hockey League's humble realization that gate receipts - not national TV exposure - is germane to success for the North American game.
"You can have a rink, a momentary increase of interest, a buzz about hockey, but sustaining it year in and year out is another matter," says Steve Hardy, a hockey historian at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. "There's something about winter and ice and thick coats that is part of hockey but is not an issue in other sports."
With ratings down and the game moved from ESPN to Outdoor Life Network (of Tour de France and bull-riding fame), questions arise about the viability of a 30-team league spread from the frozen north to the balmy South.
While most of Canada is rooting for the Oilers, who lost the first two games in Raleigh, N.C., this week, the Hurricanes, whose fans have coined the phrase "redneck hockey," don't quite stack up to, say, Red Sox Nation.
TV earnings for the National Football League, for example, are 66 percent of revenues. Hockey gets only about 3 percent of revenues from TV - a testament, critics say, to its lack of broad appeal. What's more, though on-ice fighting is down this year, hockey still sees occasional toe-to-toe brawls, which deter many soccer moms.
Others say it's just too hard to watch.
"That's always been the knock against hockey: You can't see the puck," says Todd Kendall, a sports economist at Clemson University in South Carolina.
For all the sport's problems, the hockey gods (and Commissioner Gary Bettman) are smiling. Fans attendance was up 4 percent since the 2004 season - a better rate of return than pro baseball saw after its strike. The league has taken in $300 million more than expected, and most clubs are now profitable.
It's all part of the hockey paradox. "The NHL has always dreamed about getting 30 million [TV] viewers instead of 1 million [US] viewers," says Jim Boone of the NHL Fans Association (NHLFA) in Ottawa. "But when you're talking about the gate, it's still a big-league sport."
Most important, the appearance of two scrappy outsiders in the Stanley Cup final means hockey has given fans what they cherish most: hope. "Fans want to know that, every once in awhile, David is going to get a shot and it's not always Goliath in the ring," says Bill Sutton, a sports marketing professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
With nail-biters dominating the playoffs, some fans are getting that old-time feeling from the new NHL. It doesn't hurt that the matchup is the first between two former World Hockey Association clubs: the Oilers and the former New England Whalers. The 'Canes have even played the Whalers' old fight song, "Brass Bonanza," to get the nostalgia flowing in a league that, a year after it looked defunct, is notching fan noise at 126 decibels.