This year’s NHL Stanley Cup Final, pitting the Chicago Blackhawks against the Tampa Bay Lightning has proven just how far the league has come. One of the league’s newer teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning, had to dispatch a 1967 expansion team, the New York Rangers, to get there. On the other hand, the Chicago Blackhawks got pushed to the brink by Southern California’s upstart Anaheim Ducks. What a competitive league the NHL has become. Thanks to several events that paved the way for a greater acceptance of the sport and the NHL, both have become as popular as ever.

To start with, the geographical diversity of hockey has never been greater, with teams in three of the warmest states in the U.S, California, Florida and Arizona. The league now includes players from 42 different countries, with several coming from parts of the world that don’t ever see any ice or snow. Teams in Colorado and San Jose, have been recognized as having some of the league’s most raucous fans. Twenty-six of the NHL’s 30 teams filled, on average, over 90% of their seats during the 2014-2015 NHL season. The sport that has endured its share of financial difficulties, now has a salary cap in place. The Stanley Cup has become one of the most recognizable trophies in all of sports. Although most of this momentum and growth has occurred in the United States, Canadians can be proud that so many Americans have fallen in love with their favorite sport.

The following list includes the 10 most important things or events that have led to a spike in popularity, for not only the NHL, but the sport of hockey as well. There might not be a “Great One” or Mario Lamieux in the NHL today, but the game is as exciting as ever and keeps drawing in more and more fans. Thanks in large part to the things on this list, the NHL has quietly become one of the biggest success stories in sports.

10. The 2003 Heritage Classic

via nhl.com

via nhl.com

The 2003 Heritage Classic was the first outdoor hockey game ever played in a big stadium. The game pitted the Edmonton Oilers against the Montreal Canadians, drawing 57,167 fans to Edmonton’s Commonwealth stadium. Fans braved temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius to watch the historic game that commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Edmonton Oilers and 20th anniversary of their first Stanley Cup. The game also drew 2.747 million television viewers in Canada alone, the second largest viewing audience for a regular season game in Canada. The game featured a “Megastars” game that was played before the NHL contest, including many stars from the past who played for both clubs.

The success of this game led to a series of outdoor games now called the Winter Classics which have become one of the NHL’s premier events. The 2014 Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, played at Michigan Stadium, drew a world record attendance of 104,491. These games have been a boon for the sport, providing evidence to the world that hockey is without doubt a major spectator sport.

9. Rule Changes of 2005

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Hockey used to have the same issues with ties that soccer had, with a good number of games ending in ties after three periods of regular play and one overtime period. A shootout was instituted to put an end to ties. Teams were awarded one point for the tie and the team that won the shootout was given another point in the standings. The league also modified several other rules in an effort to make it easier to score. Similar to the hand-check rule in basketball, hockey aimed to eliminate clutching and grabbing, while also eliminating the two-line offside pass rule, ending the no-touch icing rule and reducing the size of goaltender equipment.

Another big change was made to reduce fighting, especially in the last five minutes of a game. Instigating players would be given a game misconduct penalty and one game suspension, while the player’s coach would also draw a $10,000 fine. Although many novice hockey fans might consider some of these changes to be minor, eliminating ties went a long way towards popularizing the sport in win or lose sports culture of the United States.

8. Mario Lemieux

via greatesthockeylegends.com

via greatesthockeylegends.com

Mario Lemieux might have been distinctly Canadian, but his presence on the ice was appealing to many American fans. Enamored with his 6-foot-4, 235 pound size, many hockey fans in the U.S. were impressed with the way he could move on the ice and handle a stick. Lemieux led the Pittsburgh Penguins to Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992, while also capturing the Lester B. Pearson Award four times, the Hart Trophy three times, and the Art Ross Trophy sixtimes. He retired as the NHL’s 7th leading scorer, with 690 goals and 1,033 assists. Lemieux accomplished all this despite battling various ailments and injuries throughout his career.

Mario Lemieux holds many league records along with Wayne Gretzky, with both of them inevitably brought up in any conversation involving the best to ever play the sport. Lemieux’s power and speed on the ice was only equaled by the power of his shot. He was a special player who was bigger than life on the ice. His size, talent, and athleticism, helped legitimize hockey players as athletes and brought a lot more respect to the sport.

In addition to his playing career, he helped save hockey in Pittsburgh as an owner, successfully landing a new arena for the Penguins and keeping an exciting hockey team in one of America’s better hockey markets.

7. Peter Stastny Defection of 1980

via sikids.com

via sikids.com

Peter Stastny and his brother Anton were both prominent players in Czechoslovakia, which at that time was a member of the Eastern Bloc. Peter had been honored as being the Czechoslovakia Player of the Year, when he and his brother decided to defect to Canada to play with the Quebec Nordiques. This was a huge moment that opened the doors for many other hockey players from the Eastern bloc countries to follow suit, instantly providing the NHL with a greater pool of talent to draw upon. Stastny became the second highest scorer in the NHL during the 1980s, trailing behind only Wayne Gretzky. He ended up scoring 1,239 points with 450 goals and 789 assists.

Stastny’s defection sent a ripple throughout the international ranks as members of the great Soviet Union Red Army Hockey Team would soon follow suit. This helped make the NHL the destination of choice for hockey players throughout the world, bringing so much more talent into the league. In addition to helping create more excitement in the U.S. and Canada where NHL teams are based, it helped create new fan bases throughout the world where many of these defecting players previously played.

6. 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement

via theglobeandmail.com

via theglobeandmail.com

The NHL collective bargaining agreement struck in 2005 included one feature that was very important to the success of the league. A salary cap was instituted, which was tied to league revenues and not just the revenues of individual teams. It also gave players unrestricted free rights to negotiate with any team after the age of 27 or following seven years of playing in the league, whichever came first. There were other provisions, but this was the first time the NHL Players Union gave into the institution of a cap, thanks in large part to the lockout of 2004-05. The salary cap became an important part of ensuring the survival and health of the league.

Following this collective bargaining agreement, two teams still had financial difficulties, with the Atlanta Thrashers relocating to Winnipeg to become the Jets and the Phoenix Coyotes run by the league until a new buyer was finally found in 2013. Since this time, there have been 13 different teams who have appeared in a Stanley Cup Final, making the NHL a far more competitive league. The introduction of a salary cap has really been a defining moment in the history of the league.

5. 1980 Miracle on Ice

via nbcprohockeytalk.com

via nbcprohockeytalk.com

Before 1980, many baseball, basketball and football fans in the United States were lukewarm to the sport of hockey. For so many American fans, the sport of hockey was viewed as reckless and a sport full of more fighting than choreography on ice with the aim of producing beautiful goals. The successful showing of the U.S. Olympic Team at Lake Placid in 1980 changed many Americans’ perception of the exciting sport. New sports fans started tuning into NHL games and following their local teams, parents in the U.S. saw the courage and heart of the U.S. team and introduced their kids to the ice, and a country who once considered hockey to be purely Canadian started to really warm up to the sport.

The “Miracle on Ice” was inspirational for most Americans, producing a euphoria that many sports fans wanted so badly to relive. People in warmer climates started to crave the experience of watching more games and following the sport. This one event was the impetus behind the NHL’s expansion to the south, adding even more revenues and providing even more popularity for the NHL and sport.

4. “The Trade”; Wayne Gretzky Goes to Los Angeles

via windsorstar.com

via windsorstar.com

When Wayne Gretzky joined the Los Angeles Kings in August of 1988, the impact on the NHL was enormous. Los Angeles was the Lakers’ town and the Kings were a team struggling for an identity. Things changed when “The Great One” moved into the second largest media market in the United States. In 1993, the Los Angeles Kings appeared in their first Stanley Cup Final and despite losing to the Montreal Canadiens, hockey in southern California would forever be changed. This successful experiment didn’t sit well with Edmonton fans, but it was the NHL who benefited the most. “The Trade” led to expansion to add more warm weather teams, including the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, both thriving NHL teams who entered the league thanks in large part to “The Trade” and the success of the Kings.

Gretzky was arguably hockey’s greatest all-time player and Los Angeles was the perfect place for him to land if the idea was to give the sport more attention and hype. Although the Kings didn’t win a Stanley Cup during his stay, attendance shot up and some of Hollywood’s big stars were coming to the games. This experience ended up being all the proof the NHL needed that hockey could flourish in cities without ice or snow.

3. The Expansions of the 1990s

via the1jasontaylor.wordpress.com

via the1jasontaylor.wordpress.com

In the 1990s, the NHL went into an expansion mode never before seen since the expansion of 1967. In this decade, the league added the San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers. In 2000, the league expanded even more by adding the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Bluejackets. By the end of 2000, the NHL had expanded to 30 teams. There was more movement as well, with the Minnesota North Stars becoming the Dallas Stars, the Quebec Nordiques becoming the Colorado Avalanche, the Hartford Whalers becoming the Carolina Hurricanes and the Winnipeg Jets moving to Phoenix to become the Coyotes.

The Thrashers have since moved to Winnipeg to become the Jets. All this movement was instrumental in opening up many new markets in the southern United States, with many new posh arenas built to accommodate many of the new teams. The cold weather sport that was revered in Canada and dominated by Canadian and foreign stars, was now accepted in sunny California, the football hotbed of the deep south and even the cactus filled state of Arizona. The NHL had quickly become a major U.S. sport.

2. The 1967 NHL Expansion

via casualist.com

via casualist.com

Although this is one of the oldest events on this list, it was easily one of the most important factors that contributed to the NHL that fans enjoy today. It wasn’t easy for NHL owners to agree to this change, as they were afraid expansion would only dilute their profits. Finally, pressure from the rival World Hockey League (WHL) and a desire to land a lucrative television contract made them change their minds. In 1967, the league, that only had six members at that time, doubled in size to twelve teams. This expansion was critical to the league because it brought NHL hockey to the West Coast for the very first time, broke the NHL’s owners resistance to change, doubled the size of the league, and made it more resistant to competition.

The television contract never materialized, yet the expansion paved the way for the NHL’s success as a major North American league. The WHL would cease to exist, Bobby Orr’s NHL record million dollar contract would quickly follow, and the league would regain most of the ground it was losing while competing with the WHL. It also brought new players and uniform colors into the league, exposed more fans to hockey, and led to more revenues from attendance and sales of merchandise. It was a critical step in ensuring the survival of the league, proving to NHL owners that expansion was smart business. It also led to the popularity the NHL enjoys today.

1. The Great One

 Mike Powell  /Allsport

Mike Powell /Allsport

Wayne Douglas Gretzky was likely the greatest thing to ever happen to the NHL. Simply called, “The Great One”, Gretzky was the Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan of hockey. His greatness came at a critical time for the sport. Prior to his arrival, many casual fans were still convinced that hockey was mostly a brutal sport full of toothless goons gone wild. Wayne Gretzky changed more than one casual fan’s perception of the sport. His fluidity on the ice, outstanding vision, and incredible skill with a stick, were unparalleled in the sport. Gretzky had movie star good looks, was not particularly big or athletic, but on the ice he was unstoppable. Gretzky led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups, captured nine Hart Trophies, 10 Art Ross Trophies and five Lester B. Pearson Awards.

Besides his prowess on the ice, Gretzky was an ambassador who spoke out against fighting, the biggest reason the state of California has been able to support three NHL teams, and a big reason many casual fans started to follow the sport. Much like the NBA surged in popularity during the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird era, the Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux era was the most defining moment for the sport. All his accomplishments aside, Wayne Gretzky was able to add an aesthetic beauty to what was previously a black and blue sport.

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