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Starkey: NHL getting last laugh

Remember all those dire predictions from the NHL lockout four years ago?

This is the last league that can afford a lengthy work stoppage, doomsayers said.

It will permanently alienate its fan base.

It will never attract new fans.

It will die a wretched death.

Well, lookie here: The NHL's on fire. Partly by luck, partly by design, the league everyone loves to bash (often with good reason) is producing a consistently entertaining product that is attracting increased numbers of paying customers and television viewers.

In the United States, television ratings are up from last season on NBC (10 percent) and Versus (23 percent). In Canada, the NHL confirmed earlier this week, ratings are up on CBC, TSN and French-language RDS. Local ratings for 21 of the 30 teams are up from or even with last season.

A full 17 of the league's 30 teams are playing to 95-percent capacity or better, compared to 14 last year, despite the terrible economy.

That doesn't mean the NHL is problem-free. Doesn't mean it's about to overtake the NFL or NASCAR in terms of popularity, either. It might not even overtake the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (which, by the way, is quite popular).

But it's far from dead.

Truly, the league hasn't been this compelling since the early 1990s.

Nearly every time I flick on a game, I am entertained. That was so not the case as recently as 2003-04, the last season before the league went dark for a year.

The lockout forced the NHL to take a long, hard look at itself. It emerged radically different and much improved.

Sweeping changes and the near-elimination of hooking and holding have conspired to create a game that looks an awful lot like ... hockey.

Traditionalists will tell you the shootout stinks and nobody hits anymore.

They are wrong.

Granted, some of the mauling has been taken out the game - particularly in front of the net - but if anything, collisions are more violent nowadays, because players are moving largely unimpeded at a higher rate of speed.

If you love hockey, you had to love the Penguins-Hurricanes game Saturday night. Action was fast and ferocious for the better part of 60-plus minutes, much like a lot of the games I've watched this season.

Low-talent hacks, who've mostly been weeded out, cannot get away with clutching and grabbing their way to paychecks anymore. We are beginning to see the fruit of teams drafting a new breed of player - new breed being players who can skate, pass and shoot.

Size doesn't matter so much anymore, except in goal.

Meanwhile, new coaches are implementing systems in which fast and skilled players can thrive. The neutral-zone trap has become less prevalent, sticking out like a purple puck in places such as Minnesota, a hockey hotbed where the populace has to be deathly sick of watching their team trap more than Grizzly Adams.

All of that was the design behind the new NHL. Here's the lucky part: The league has been blessed with an influx of electric young talent over the past four years.

Check the top 10 scoring leaders from the past two years before the lockout. You'll see familiar but fading names such as Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Glen Murray, Mario Lemieux, Ziggy Palffy and Joe Sakic.

Now look. Seven of the top 10 scorers are 25 or younger. Atop the heap sit Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who form the NHL's answer to the NBA's "Big Three" of other-worldly talents -- LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.

In Chicago (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane) and Columbus (Rick Nash, Steve Mason), great young players are gearing up for their playoff debuts. Stars emerging elsewhere include New Jersey's Zach Parise, Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf and Washington's Mike Green.

Open your eyes, doomsayers.

The NHL is alive and well.

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