Will Olympics hockey boost the NHL?

The 2010 Vancouver Olympics hockey final, with the US losing in overtime to Canada, heightened the sport's profile. Will the NHL benefit?

Paul Chiasson/AP
Canada's Sidney Crosby celebrates his game winning goal during overtime of the men's ice hockey gold-medal final at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia Feb. 28. Mr. Crosby also plays for the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. The heightened attention surrounding hockey during the Olympics could give the NHL a much-needed boost.

The phenomenal showing of the US and Canadian teams in this year’s winter Olympics could give the struggling National Hockey League a much needed boost.

Canadian star Sidney Crosby, who scored the winning goal against the US during overtime of Sunday's gold-medal game, and US goalie Ryan Miller have become household names during the 13-day games. Each will return to his NHL team this week – Mr. Crosby to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mr. Miller to the Buffalo Sabres – along with their 44 other teammates, all of whom are also NHL players.

“There’s a good chance that there’ll be some at least short-term positive effect,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. “It could entice people to spend some more [time] with hockey.”

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The league has been struggling with low viewership in recent years, especially after stalled negotiations over the league’s salary cap shut down the 2004 season.

Versus, the sports network that airs weekday NHL games in the US, has averaged about 278,000 viewers per game this season. In that respect, there is much room for improvement.

Despite the success of its players in Vancouver, the NHL remains undecided about whether to continue to allow players to participate in future Olympics. The league has to take a two-week hiatus in the middle of its season to accommodate Olympic scheduling and though players’ salaries are insured in case of injury, there’s no way to mitigate the losses a team might experience were one of its star players to suffer a serious injury during the Games.

"It's clear when you look at these Games from 30,000 feet, it's all good, but you do have to take a step back on ground level and look at the impact on our season," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters during the Games

"From an ownership standpoint, in the middle of the season, we would just as soon skip it," says Rocky Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, in a pre-Olympics interview with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. "It doesn't add any more to our sport."

If the NHL is able to capitalize on the success of the Olympics, it’s possible the gains would only be short term.

“It depends on how the league builds on [the Olympics],” says Mr. Zimbalist. Coming out of the close of the games, they have a “small opening” to attract new fans.

But hockey is a “second-class professional sport in the US,” says Zimbalist, suffering in comparison to the popularity of other sports like football, baseball, and basketball. And the success of 1980 US hockey team against Russia – the so-called "miracle on ice" – didn’t change that.

This Olympics benefited from stellar US and Canadian teams, as well as being able to air games live in prime time because there was little or no time difference for viewers in the US. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia will suffer from an 8- to 11-hour time difference for American viewers.

The decision on whether NHL players will travel to Sochi won’t be made until the league and the players sit down to negotiate the NHL's next collective bargaining agreement, which expires after next season.

The spectacular showing of the US and Canadian teams, manned exclusively by NHL players, could translate into a fresh audience for the NHL, which has been suffering from low TV audiences in recent years. Follow us on Twitter @CSMecon or Facebook.

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