NHL looks to build on its successful post-lockout return

A year ago, there was giddy anticipation at the return of hockey after a labor dispute scuttled the entire 2004-05 season.

That enthusiasm, shot through with anxiety about what the game would look like and how fans would respond, was rewarded with a return that can best be described as stunning.

In spite of dire predictions, new rules and unprecedented levels of enforcement on existing rules saw goal-scoring jump 18 percent from the 2003-04 season, the largest jump in offense in 75 years. There were more 50-goal scorers and 100-point producers than any one year in the previous decade. The rookie crop, led by Calder Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin and including Sidney Crosby, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller and Dion Phaneuf, was the strongest in memory. The playoffs produced compelling storylines and finished with an emotional seven-game finals series in which Carolina prevailed to win its first Stanley Cup. True, only a handful of American fans watched the series outside the Raleigh area, but at its most basic level, the hockey was dynamic.

Attendance was strong in traditional hockey markets, less so in non-traditional markets, but overall, fans returned in a wholly unexpected fashion after the lockout.

So, what now?

A year later, the anticipation returns, but with a little more angst. What does the league do for an encore? How does it maintain the unexpected traction of last season and move forward in a year that might be more important than last?

The buzzword for the coming season is upkeep. It comes from executives and players, coaches and GMs.

"You don't get in shape and just stop working out," explained New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur, a member of the NHL's competition committee. "You have to keep at it."

Players have to keep learning what is permissible, coaches have to impose schemes that allow their teams to be successful within the new economic and on-ice parameters and referees have to keep the game clean.

The competition committee wisely decided to make only the smallest of adjustments to what were significant rule changes and enforcement standards imposed a year ago.

Brodeur said the committee believed it was important to let the players have another year with the new rules and strict enforcement standards without introducing even more changes.

The anticipated relaxing of rules governing curves on sticks was approved, as was a commitment to crack down on embellishing of fouls or diving. Both make eminent sense.

"Not seeing (Jaromir) Jagr taking a penalty shot, seeing him on the bench pouting, that was ridiculous," Brodeur told ESPN.com, referring to an incident last season when Jagr was deemed to have an illegal stick prior to a shootout and was denied a chance to take part. "Most of the best players play with an illegal stick."

In the future, more rules will be imposed to aid the already improved flow of games, including restricting when goaltenders can freeze the puck. But all in time.

Barring some unforeseen dynamics, the NHL's on-ice product should continue on its arc of excitement. And if that is so, it would appear the NHL's biggest problems, its biggest challenge, will be in exposing the public, specifically the American public, to the new game.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly acknowledged that after last year's "trial" run, this season will be crucial to the league's exposure.

One of the big challenges for the league this season will be in improving the game's exposure on its main U.S. cable carrier. OLN, which will inexplicably change its name to Versus prior to the start of the regular season, has promised to improve on a product that began in a shoddy fashion but managed to hit its stride when it provided blanket coverage of the first three rounds of the playoffs.

"By the end of the season, it was a good, solid broadcast," Daly said.

Now, if only people are able to dial in the broadcasts with some degree or regularity or certainty, things would look a whole bunch brighter.

To that end, OLN/Versus announced its penetration in the American market has jumped by 7.2 million homes since January and now tops 70 million homes nationwide. But for the deal to work for the NHL, it has to be readily accessible in big markets like Los Angeles and New York, where hundreds of thousands of hockey fans were denied the opportunity to see playoff games involving teams in those markets.

In some markets including Buffalo, local bars and restaurants had to upgrade their cable or satellite packages because OLN wasn't available on standard packages. Many simply did not.

Daly said those are concerns and areas which are under construction as the network and league enter into their second of a three-year deal (the NHL holds the option on the third year) and he hopes the games will be available on basic cable packages in more markets this coming season.

NBC, which earned raves for its production of playoff games even though they saw a big dip in ratings over ABC's broadcasts from 2003-04, will return with nine weekend offerings during the regular season, up from six a year ago, before their coverage of the finals.

"I think it was a year of transition in a lot of respects," said Daly, who praised the NBC telecasts as "the best produced games, ever, in the United States."

If there is reason for optimism that the historically murky television picture in the U.S. will become clearer in the coming months, it's the presence of long-time hockey broadcaster John Shannon, who is in his first season as the NHL's broadcasting guru.

By the end of this season, it's not beyond the realm of possibility there will be something approaching a bidding war for a product that was generally held in contempt prior to the lockout.

The other problem area the NHL must address is in the marketing of the league nationally and in individual markets.

After the widely panned "Art of War" campaign that launched the new NHL, the league has come up with a new strategy with the league's star players as the focus.

Among the league's initiatives this season will be a series of 75 mini-features produced by NHL Productions that will be available to broadcasters across the NHL. Ed Horne, the president of NHL Enterprises, told ESPN.com that having re-established a relationship with the core fan across the NHL last season, the league is focused on expanding that bond to the casual fan.

The theory is simple, if fans are twigged to the stories of a player like Jarome Iginla or Joe Thornton or Evgeni Malkin, they might be curious enough to buy a ticket. And, so the theory goes, once the fan is inside the building, the game sells itself.

The NHL is also trying to push itself into the consciousness of the American public by insinuating its logos and brands into movies and television series via the league's ongoing talks with West Coast ad agencies. The FOX show "Bones", for instance, features NHL merchandise in office shots. And on Denis Leary's critically acclaimed "Rescue Me," seen on F/X in the United States, Phil Esposito did a nice turn as a firefighter in the past season.

The NHL is also pushing its major sponsors to use its players in their spots, as well, while hip magazine FHM will shortly unveil it's first hockey-themed preview issue.

As for getting the message out in NHL cities, the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association have embarked on an unprecedented plan wherein each team has appointed a business representative from among its players who will work with local marketing and communications staffs, as well as with owners and managers on a league-wide basis.

"It just made common sense," explained Manny Malhotra, the business rep for the Columbus Blue Jackets. "For so many years, it seemed like the league was just kind of dictating what was good and how we were going to be marketed."

Traditionally, there are a handful of players on each team that end up being the go-to guys for public appearances, even interviews. The business reps hope to engage more of the team by helping determine which players might be best suited for different activities or promotions. The theory is the more players who develop a profile within a specific market, especially non-traditional markets, the better the connection between the team and the community.

"Our role, first and foremost, is to kind of act as a liaison between the team and the players," Malhotra said. "Not to get in the middle necessarily, but our role is more to stress the importance of everything being revenue-based."

"We're going to have to be able to step outside the traditional box a little bit," added Marty Turco, the business rep for the Dallas Stars. "There are huge barriers that we need to break down, the old mentality that hockey players just play hockey."

Business reps were invited to league meetings in Montreal this summer, the first time such an invitation had been extended, and both sides report the players took full advantage to make their feelings known.

"They were very vocal, very much a voice," said Bernadette Mansur, senior vice-president of communications for the NHL.

The NHL realized a surprising growth in revenue in its first year back as the salary cap jumped from $39 million to $44 million. Critics will suggest that is artificial growth as the league arbitrarily set the cap at a low figure in its first post-lockout season. Critics suggest the NHL will be hard-pressed to generate more growth, but Daly disagrees.

"This year coming up will be the first year of a phase of growth for the league," Daly predicted. "I do expect revenues to continue to grow."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.