Always a first adopter of technological trends, my dad bought one of the early HDTV models in the early-2000s. In retrospect, this very well could have been a 3DTV-like miscalculation on his part, but when we first replaced the monstrous 40-inch CRT model that no human could lift by himself and replaced it with the slightly lighter 50-inch HDTV, it was clear this would be no Betamax. We gasped. Up until that point, it was the most formative moment of my life, with the possible exception of when we got broadband and I downloaded an MP3 on Napster in less than ten minutes.
We got the TV for sports, mostly for football. But football wasn't drastically improved by HD; you could see a bit more of the field and confidently berate the referees for a missed call, but the difference was akin to wearing glasses for the first time. This is what HD did to most sports: an obvious improvement for existing fans but not an attraction for new ones. However, hockey in HD was the broadband effect. It didn't just bring the game into focus; the blind could now see.
Back when televisions were stationary flashlights, watching hockey from home was a guessing game. You had to intuit based on player movement where the puck was, who the players were, or to tell what the hell was going on in general. It was little more than a bright radio. If you can imagine watching a basketball or soccer game with the ball edited out, you have a pretty good idea what pre-HD hockey was like. HD broadcasts have so fundamentally transformed hockey that, if I didn't know any better, I would think the NHL had a hand in inventing it.
For the NHL, this was no minor consideration. By the mid-1990s, television had clearly proven itself as the great new revenue stream for professional sports, yet hockey was a frustrating viewing experience. The NHL and its broadcast partners knew this hindered the sport's growth potential, which is why they futzed around with potential solutions and alternatives, leading most infamously to the misguided, mishandled and ultimately misunderstood Glow Puck venture. For everything the Glow Puck -- a technologically-advanced and exceedingly complex digital graphic which made the puck "glow" on television -- got obnoxiously wrong, it did solve a fundamental flaw with the sport: you couldn't see the damn puck. The main problem with the Glow Puck was it solved the problem too much, alienating existing fans with a kitschy, obtrusive graphic while failing to attract new viewers in large enough quantities to make up the difference. Where the Glow Puck failed, HD came to hockey's rescue.
Very few people think of hockey as a great sport to watch on TV. Part of this is because, in general, hockey isn't all that popular. The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs averaged around 2 million viewers per game, or about a third of the NBA's first round audience. But another factor is that, historically, hockey hasn't been any fun to watch on television. Widespread HD broadcasts in the US are about a decade old -- the first regular, national HD broadcasts were in the mid-2000's -- which unfortunately coincided with a lockout and southern expansion that reduced the league's appeal. You could legitimately argue the league is just beginning to pick up where it left off prior to the 2004-05 lockout.
Now that people are beginning to pay attention to the sport again, they might be noticing it's a more enjoyable viewing experience than ever. HD reveals what hockey fans have known all along: structurally, the game is very conducive to a great TV experience. Like basketball, all the action can fit on a television screen, something with which football, and to some extent soccer and baseball, suffer greatly. Also, hockey lacks basketball's final minute syndrome, during which someone could run all their errands. Hockey's pacing is largely encouraging of modern viewing habits with regular, predictable breaks (commercial breaks tend to air with about 14 minutes, six minutes and three minutes left in each period) sandwiched between constant streams of play. There's very limited standing-and-waiting, time-wasting tactics or other distasteful "gamesmanship" that detracts from other sports. It has perfected the concept of video reviews, which are typically handled by the Toronto office in a minute or less. Combine this with great commentators who are rarely forced to fill dead time, and you have a viewing experience tailor-made for the modern sporting landscape. This isn't to say television is a perfect substitute for the in-stadium experience, but it is the sport where the least is lost in translation.
The worst thing going for hockey is that it is, in every respect, the NBA's direct competitor. Games are played at identical times of day during identical times of year. The NHL has a legitimate argument for the most unpredictable and cardiac-inducing playoffs in sports, a two-month-long frenzy of nightly action with every game broadcast nationally, but the NBA does, too. More to the point, the NBA didn't spend the last two decades operating under the decision tree that whatever enrages loyal fans the most must be the path to growth.
So much of what the NHL has done since the prevalence of HDTV has counteracted any benefits it may bring. Protracted lockouts, significant rule changes, frequent franchise relocations, struggling southern teams, the HDNet/Versus era and Gary Bettman's continuing existence have made any "watch more hockey!" argument very tough to win.
Ironically, it's a bit of a chicken/egg scenario for the NHL: A great television product leads to higher ratings leads to better television deals leads to more revenue leads to greater certainty and stability. Yet, it's hard to convince anyone they should get into hockey when the sport disappears every six years, especially if they're already basketball fans, so the ratings stay small. HD makes hockey worth watching, but first, the league needs to be worth liking.