It's been nearly four years since Sidney Crosby's golden goal against the United States kicked off an Olympic-sized party in Canada. That amazing gold-medal game showed that this is the only hockey competition comparable to the breathtaking excitement and drama of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In just seven months, the Sochi Olympics have the potential to substantially impact the growth and popularity of the NHL and the sport as a whole after a wildly successful lockout-shortened 2013 season.
Following a postseason and Stanley Cup Final that produced record-breaking television ratings, the Olympics will be another wonderful advertisement for casual sports fans who don't follow the NHL regularly.
When it comes to Winter Olympic sports generating an overall buzz, the hockey competition is the most popular event (per Nielsen), undoubtedly thanks to the participation of NHL players.
Per a CTV press release (h/t TVBytheNumbers), Canada's gold-medal triumph over the United States in Vancouver four years ago was "the most-watched television broadcast ever in Canadian history, with an average audience of 16.6 million viewers." For NBC, it was the best possible matchup, as evidenced by the incredible ratings.
Canada’s epic 3-2 overtime victory (3:20-6:13 p.m. ET) drew an average viewership of 27.6 million, the most watched hockey broadcast of any kind since the USA vs. Finland 1980 gold medal game in Lake Placid on Feb. 24, 1980 (32.8 million).
The amazing performances at the Olympics will give casual fans a sneak peek at the excitement they could see long after Sochi during the NHL playoff races and the postseason.
Getting fans hooked on the sport before the playoffs begin should greatly benefit the NHL, especially since the month after the Olympics includes no NFL or regular-season MLB games to pull fan attention elsewhere.
Even if Canada and the United States don't square off with the gold medal at stake for the third time in 12 years, every presumed gold-medal contender has a star from a major-market NHL franchise, including Sweden (Henrik Lundqvist, New York), Finland (Tuukka Rask, Boston), Russia (Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh), the Czech Republic (Tomas Plekanec, Montreal) and Slovakia (Zdeno Chara, Boston).
Several of the best players likely to be on the 2014 American squad, including Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Ryan Callahan, Ryan Suter and Jonathan Quick, all play on NHL clubs in the United States, where 23 of the league's 30 teams are located. A quality Olympic performance by these players would be good publicity for their respective teams and boost interest in the NHL throughout the country.
Capitalizing on the wave of momentum following the Olympics is another important goal for the NHL next season. There's going to be a small window where casual fans are still in awe of the great moments that Olympic hockey has produced, and it will be up to the NHL to make sure these people turn their focus to the final months of the regular season.
This is why scheduling an outdoor matchup at Soldier Field between the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins was a brilliant idea.
It will feature several Olympic stars, including Patrick Kane (USA), Duncan Keith (Canada), Jonathan Toews (Canada), Evgeni Malkin (Russia) and Sidney Crosby (Canada).
Next year's Olympic Games will be another wonderful celebration of the sport, and the NHL's decision to allows its players to participate in this competition will boost the league's popularity in the months following the events of Sochi.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.