The National Hockey League season gets underway Tuesday night, with several pundits picking the Pittsburgh Penguins to win it all. Others say the Chicago Blackhawks will repeat as champions.
Whoever comes out on top, last year's labor stoppage and shortened game schedule—from 82 to 48—seem like a distant memory.
Worries that die-hard fans would abandon the sport proved empty as arenas for the near-half season were mostly filled to capacity. Television ratings for the Stanley Cup finals between the Boston Bruins and the Blackhawks hit record levels.
And with a long-term labor deal in place as well as expanded TV coverage by NBC, analysts say the NHL is in the best position it's ever been to become the bigger force in sports it's always wanted to be.
"The stars seem aligned for hockey to really take off," said David Hollander, professor of sports management at New York University.
"They had a classic showdown in the finals, they have a real media partner with NBC which created two new shows for the NHL, and fans are still there," he said. "I think the NHL is in the best position it's been in for a long time."
NBC is a sister network of CNBC, both of which are units of NBC Universal.
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"Considering where hockey was a year ago, this is almost too good to be true," said Mark Conrad, professor of sports law at Fordham University.
"The team owners seem in better shape financially, and they should have 10 years of labor peace," said Conrad. "They have a lot to be satisfied about looking forward."