x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Rise in ice hockey popularity to melt

The gold medal match at the Winter Olympics was a sports anomaly. It was the story that made people watch, not the following for a niche sport in America.

Sunday's Winter Olympic gold medal game between Canada and the United States was the most watched ice hockey match in the past 30 years. Approximately one in every three Americans watching TV at the time was tuned into the much-anticipated clash, which the Canadians won 3-2 in overtime. That is up 46 per cent on the gold medal match for the 2002 Olympics, which featured the same two countries playing in Salt Lake City.

Not since the 1980 "Miracle on Ice", when the US upset the Soviet Union, have that many Americans made an appointment to watch hockey. The US lost on Sunday, but the lingering question is will the NHL be the winner in the long term? During the match which was broadcast on NBC, the network ran promotions for upcoming NHL broadcasts; obviously trying to capitalise on the captive audience. You would expect a quick bump in NHL ratings with games being played around the league just days after the Olympics, but what the NHL needs is more than just a quick influx of viewers, it needs a whole new legion of fans to compete as a league.

I spoke to the Sports Illustrated media critic Richard Deitsch after the gold medal match to see what type of boost the NHL would get from the Vancouver Games. "The afterglow of the USA-Canada game will have a very short-lived viewership in America, if at all, though I'd imagine some casual fans will tune into see Sidney Crosby or Ryan Miller if those teams happen to be playing on television," Deitsch said. "The more interesting question is whether the NHL can get some traction for the play-offs.

"If Sidney Crosby can meet Alex Ovechkin in the semi-finals, or if the Penguins can face a big market team such as Chicago in the finals, I think the NHL might get a small bump, but underline the word small. Hockey remains a niche sport in America." I completely agree with Deitsch. The gold medal match was a sports anomaly. It was the story that made people watch, not the sport. The fact that the favoured Canadians lost to the underdogs US in an early round, set up a situation where a gold medal game rematch was something even the casual sports fan could not pass up.

You did not have to like ice hockey in any way to be captivated by the final. The case can be made that the Vancouver Olympics has more of an effect on the sport of curling than the sport of ice hockey. Curling, which is often made fun of, became a cult hit in America over the past three weeks. The guys I work with found a local curling venue and gave it a try. Now I know that ESPN is unlikely to add curling to its broadcast schedule, but it is just as unlikely that they will try to re-acquire the rights to show NHL games.

Let's put it this way. I was glued to my television watching the gold medal game. When Canada's Crosby put his final shot past the American goaltender Miller, I was crushed. But two days later when Miller's Buffalo Sabres faced Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night, I did not bother to tune in. The NHL expanded too far during its heyday of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. The league now has 30 teams, 24 outside the sport's home country of Canada.

For a short period of time when Gretzky was the king of ice hockey, the sport nipped at the heels of the NFL, baseball and the NBA. Now despite having young players like Miller and Crosby, and despite a great worldwide showcase during the Vancouver Olympics, the NHL will quickly return to its second-tier sport status in the US. @Email:sports@thenational.ae