Through the power of no uncertain equation, the NHL actually looks like it’s enjoying a period of growth south of the Canadian border. Monday’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals netted the highest ratings for a Game 2 on record.  NBC actually pulled of a Monday evening ratings victory with Game 2  at the forefront:

NBC was the most-watched network for the three hours of primetime with a 4.1 overnight rating and 7 share, the highest for Game 2 of the finals for as long as data is available, since 1975. - Detroit Free Press

Whether that success translates to Versus’ scheduled coverage for Games 3 and 4 is moot.  There is clearly an audience for this post-season’s grand finale.  Surely much of this new found viewership success is owed the convenient on-ice successes of two major American markets that are traditionally hockey friendly, but there are a number of other less measurable forces at work here, too.

The Olympics, for one have provided even the most casual hockey fans with a larger working knowledge of NHL talent.  Many pundits argued that while the potential ratings for the finals were to be aided by the presence of both the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks, that the series was lacking any true star power (i.e. Crosby or Ovechkin).  The Olympic gold medal game was the most watched hockey game in the United States in 30 years and roughly every Canadian with a television set tuned in, even Daniel “Car Bombs” Carcillo can figure out the role it’s played in the peaking interest around the Stanley Cup Final:

“I think a big part of it was the Olympics,” Philadelphia Flyers forward Daniel Carcillo said. “What a tournament that was. The final game brought a lot of hype around hockey.” - NBC Sports

Obviously, there’s still much work to be done for hockey to be truly considered a viable television success, primarily in some of the struggling sunbelt and expansion/relocation markets.  Monday’s Game 2 was the fourth most viewed show of the evening behind reruns of “Two and a Half Men”, “The Big Bang Theory”, and a new episode of “The Bachelorette”.  Still, it was the staple that helped NBC pull in the best ratings overall for the night.

Overall, it’s been a strong year of growth on a number of levels for the NHL.  According to NBC Sports, via Gary Bettman himself:

Corporate sponsors for the NHL rose 20 percent this year, including new partnerships with Geico, Starwood Hotels and LG Electronics. League revenues should be up 4 percent this year, Bettman said.

Sales of merchandise at playoff venues are 10 percent higher than last year, and the NHL’s online store has seen a 31 percent increase.

The rising popularity of NHL hockey in American markets is also evidenced by the rapid growth of Versus, which became the home of hockey following the 2004-2005 lockout.  The first two rounds of the 2010 playoffs averaged 775,000 viewers on Versus, good enough for the highest rated cable coverage the NHL has seen in the United States since 1993-94.  Hockey’s current period of popularity hasn’t been lost on the Comcast folks that call the shots for Versus; tonight for the first time, Versus will air live pre-game and post-game shows live from Philadelphia.  Of course, it helps that Versus’ hockey coverage originates from Philadelphia’s Comcast Center.

Versus President Jamie Davis actually stopped by Fox Business News for some discussion on the cable network’s ‘NHL victory’.  If you have five minutes or so you should take a look/listen to a few people with minimal hockey knowledge talk about the increasing financial viability of the sport as a television product.  Tap your sticks for Bangin’ Panger on the video find.

Clearly, there’s still much work to be done to improve the misfortunes of a couple of sagging markets, and the NHL has a number of on-ice issues to iron out before we start declaring a total victory, but hey, it’s growing.  Now if we can just find a way for the league to get some money out of NBC…