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Hockey is better off when the United States wins

As a Canadian hockey fan, seeing my team dismantle the United States at the World Cup of Hockey Tuesday night was great. But as someone who wants to grow the game of hockey, it was tough to watch.

With the United States effectively out of the tournament (they still have one more meaningless game against the Czech Republic Thursday), the NHL lost a great chance to show off its sport to Americans who aren’t fans yet.

This tournament is being broadcast almost everywhere on ESPN, for the first time since 2004. That means for the first time in 12 years, people might accidentally stumble into a hockey game on TV.

While the ratings for Wednesday’s game aren’t available yet, this still probably sounds ridiculous to hear in Canada, where there are two dominate sports networks that have hockey on almost every day. But in the U.S., hockey is parked on NBCSN, which even during the NHL playoffs still reaches less than half of ESPN viewers.

So it’s safe to say, any hockey on ESPN should be a good thing. And back in the 90s when it was on ESPN, hockey was huge. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and many other hockey stars were huge in the U.S. And there were commercials like this.

But ever since ESPN dropped the rights to the NHL after the 2004 lockout, hockey has become a niche sport in America. Without the sport being showed on ESPN, it slowly fell off of the casual sports fans’ radar.

In the U.S., people just go to ESPN regardless of what is on. Bars across America just leave ESPN on all day, every day. Most of the time they’re showing football or baseball, but what if that was hockey? Hockey fans know the sport is fast, violent and exciting. But what if non-hockey fans got to see that too? Could they be converted?

That was the plan for this World Cup. Reintroducing casual sports fans in the United States to hockey. Growing the game with new fans.

But the U.S. losing out hurts that plan.

The U.S. roster wasn’t designed to win. I won’t go into that because lots of people have already in great detail.

But if they had beaten Canada Tuesday. If they had made it to the semifinals. ESPN would suddenly have a hot property on their hands. The marketing behind the U.S. knockout games would be huge, because everyone likes a winner.

What could have been.

This tournament was never about growing the game in Canada. Just look at how popular the world junior tournament is. This tournament was about growing the game in the U.S. and was setup perfectly to do so. The U.S. just couldn’t match the expectations.

I’m curious what lasting impression this tournament will have on hockey fans. Sochi 2014 was ok, but Canada was so much better than the other teams that no one really remembers much about it. Just think. What was the final score of the gold medal game? And who did they beat?

What everyone does remember though is the gold medal game in Vancouver, even though it was more than six years ago. Everyone remembers where they were when Crosby scored the golden goal. That’s because Canada almost lost to the U.S., a geographic rival but more than that, a formidable opponent. The teams being equal led to one of the greatest hockey games ever played.

Hockey needs the U.S. team to get back to that level in order to grow. To challenge Canada, even beat them.

Despite the U.S. loss, the World Cup continues to roll on ESPN. Then NBCSN will be back in October for the NHL season, while ESPN will go back to providing updates on the Bears’ third string quarterback.

And hockey fans will continue to wonder, how do we grow this game?

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