Hockey, the national pastime of our neighbors up north, has always been the number-four sport in the U.S., save for pockets of the country with a puck pedigree (the Northeast, the northern Midwest). While the league expanded south and west during the 1990s, and managed to have Fox broadcast Stanley Cups during the decade, that expansion has stalled and the NHL now has a deal with minor cable network Versus.
An unlikely hero has emerged for the sport in the last couple of years, though—broadcasts of hockey games in high definition. Of course, all sports look better in HD, but hockey in particular benefits from the extra resolution in one critical way: Casual viewers can now follow the puck. The inability to see the puck has been the long-time lament of people who've tried to watch a game but given up in frustration at being unable to see the little bugger.
But according to an article in the Toronto Star, NHL ratings are actually on the upswing. This season, Versus has already seen a 16-percent rise in viewership. The network itself credits the HD revolution for the gain in popularity, with Marc Fein, Versus' executive vice-president of programming, saying that "We see that as HD gets more prevalent and more people get it hooked up ... our growth in hockey has been amazing."
Whether the improving ratings will be enough to allow the league to move back to a bigger network (back on ESPN, for example) is still to be determined, but this is a more positive development than. say, people recoiling from celebrities who you realize you don't want to see in all of the glory of high definition.