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National Hockey League looks poised for major breakout

Brain Babineau | NHL1 | Getty Images

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."

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Hockey fans will have plenty to watch on TV. NBC will broadcast some 103 regular season hockey games over the network's various outlets, plus every playoff game. It's also bringing back "Wednesday Night Rivalry" on its sport network, NBCSN, as well as adding two new weekly shows, "NHL Rivals" and "NHL Top Ten." Meanwhile, the NHL's own network will broadcast some 78 games.

Building on fan popularity, the NHL is expanding the number of games played outdoors this year. Along with the annual NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day in 2014, the NHL is adding five additional outdoor stadium games in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. They will also be seen on NBC and NBCSN.

"There were several suitors besides us for the NHL," said Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBCSN. "We sold them on our ability to bring digital, cable and all our other assets to the game."

"The upgrade for hockey is so high," Miller added. "The only danger for us doing all this build up is that the price goes up and someone sees the value and takes it away from us."

"NBC did not have a huge sports portfolio before hockey," said Conrad.

"With networks like ESPN, CBS and FOX getting other sports, like football and baseball, NBC has programming to fill and the cable channels to fill it," he added. "And with their history of broadcasting hockey games it makes sense for them to expand the coverage."

The NHL has a heavy stable of advertisers in the fold, including McDonald's, Kraft, Reebok, Verizon and Visa. But more seem ready to jump on the hockey bandwagon.

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Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, maker of the pain reliever Advil, became an official league partner one day before the season's start..

For its money, Pfizer's Advil will receive significant media exposure, including prominent camera-visible dasher boards—ads that run on the sides of the rink—and placement at fan festivals.

"The NHL deal provides a terrific platform for driving the launch of our new, fast-acting Advil line," Brian Groves, U.S. chief marketing officer at Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, said in a press release.

Major changes for league

To help keep the fan base, and to perhaps expand it, the NHL is making some major changes. It's realigned its conferences to an unbalanced system—16 teams in the East and 14 in the West— that could lead to expansion.

And a wild-card playoff system is now in place, for the first time, adding more intensity for the fans.

The league is looking to increase scoring by reducing the net size to create more room to set up plays behind the net. It's also restricted the length of goalie pads used to block shots.

"This could raise the number of goals and the style of play," said Fordham's Conrad. "We'll have to see how the league adapts to this. Goalies are so big these days."

"TV not the best medium for hockey'

While all that seems rosy for pro hockey, there are some caveats ahead, say analysts.

"The NHL is always one incident away from bad publicity," said Conrad. "Like football, they have the concussion issue to deal with. And there's always the problem of stick swinging by players. Hockey has a rough and tumble reputation. I think they can be more proactive when it comes to fighting rules."

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"The league does have to look at teams that are not doing so well financially," added NYU's Hollander.

"Certain markets don't always lend themselves to hockey and the NHL needs to make the right decisions on where and if it expands," he said.

And even if there's more TV coverage, that doesn't necessarily mean that the fan base will expand, said Hollander.

"TV is not the best medium for hockey because of the speed of the game," he argued. "Unlike football or basketball, live hockey doesn't translate as well on the screen. You can't see the entire rink on TV and that's why most fans prefer being at the game itself."

The NHL's push to make hockey more mainstream could come back to bite the league. It's made a deal to showcase league players at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. But that exposure could lure players away.

The 24-team Kontinental Hockey League, based in Russia and started in 2008, is aggressively going after NHL players. Several of them went to the KHL during last year's lockout, and a few are staying.

"The KHL can pay big salaries and the NHL has some serious competition on its hands," said Conrad.

'Hockey in a great place'

Of the four major pro sports in the U.S., football, basketball, baseball and hockey, the NHL has the lowest yearly revenues, some $2.9 billion, while the NFL is tops with $9 billion.

The average NHL salary is also the lowest, at $1.3 million.

While hockey occupies the lower rungs of the four major sports, experts say it's chances of climbing higher may never be as good as they are now.

"Hockey is in a great place, from the grass-roots level to the national media," said Hollander. "They've been waiting to be here for a long time. I think it's full speed ahead for the NHL."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC