In listening to the brains behind Team USA's Olympic effort, it's pretty clear that the story needs to shift from how the Winter Games will affect the NHL to how this silver medal run will affect the sport on a micro level in the U.S.
As we said earlier this week: The Olympic hockey fan is not predisposed to become an NHL fan. They're two different experiences, emotional connections and, in some ways, games. It's something Toronto Maple Leafs GM and Team USA architect Brian Burke acknowledged in a conference call Thursday:
"I watch the Summer Olympics when track and field is on and an American runner's running, and I don't like track and field. I have no interest in it. And I watched curling, which I don't understand or like, when the American team was curling. There's a patriotism and an interest level in the Olympics than no pro sport [can capture]," said Burke.
"Yes, we had some people who watched hockey and turned the game off and may never watch it again. But I think far more people watched it and said ‘I have to give this thing a try.' "
That's the key for USA Hockey coming out of these games: It's less about how many American fans watch Ryan Miller(notes) play for the Buffalo Sabres, and more about how many American kids now want to grow up to be him.
That's to say that the silver medal run isn't the Miracle on Ice Part 2, but at least shares its ripple effect through the U.S. sports landscape, in the eyes of USA Hockey officials.
"In 1980, it had a tremendous effect," said Dave Poile, GM of the Nashville Predators and an assistant GM for the U.S. Olympic team.
"Being in prime time, everybody saw these games. I think it's going to have a dramatic effect on hockey. If may not happen overnight; but [one day] you're going to hear a new generation saying they watched the Olympics in 2010, and that Ryan Suter(notes) or Zach Parise(notes) is their favorite player, and that's how they got into hockey," said Poile.
Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey Executive Director, hammered both Burke's and Poile's points home: That the NHL is a "different animal" from the Olympics, and that the Games' impact might be better felt at the grassroots level than at the gate or in the ratings for the NHL.
"The ratings are as high as they are in the Olympics in part because you have a staggeringly large female audience component, compared to normal sports viewing in the United States. You can't replicate that and just apply those same numbers to the NHL. Ever. And that is why, while NHL numbers in the U.S. are getting stronger since the lockout ... it's not even feasible to even compare an Olympic television rating with the ratings for the NHL regular season," said Ogrean.
"At the end of the day, you can't falsely generate interest. If you did not do this within the context of the 17 days of the Olympics, you wouldn't have seen anything like a 15 rating. But clearly it gives us an audience of people who are more willing to listen than they were a month ago."
If that's what USA Hockey achieved at these Olympics, then these Olympics were a success. It's about opening new, young eyes to the possibilities of the sport beyond the NHL highlights they don't see on SportsCenter. Check out the USA Hockey participation numbers from its last annual report:
That's a miniscule portion of the total number of student athletes and youth athletes in the U.S. It's always an uphill battle for hockey in the States, because of cost and ice time and peer pressure and cultural obstacles.
This Olympic moment for the U.S. may not translate into 27 million viewers for the Stanley Cup finals, but it might mean a few thousand new hockey players. And that's a start.