The men who run the National Hockey League talk nobly about the importance of growing the game, and their reaction to Sunday's Game 3 between the Penguins and the Flyers will serve as a crucial case study in how the league's power brokers visualize its future.
They arrived at their office Monday morning in Midtown Manhattan to the news that the overnight Nielsen ratings revealed the Flyers' 8-4 victory against the Penguins was the most-watched non-Stanley Cup Finals game since 2002. The 2.3 rating -- which equates to about 2.7 million U.S. households -- also was the most watched since NBC retained the rights to NHL games in 2006.
That this particular contest registered such tremors won't be seen as mere coincidence. The Penguins and Flyers spent a combined 148 minutes in the penalty box because of numerous fights and cheap shots. For many, the lasting image of the game won't be brilliant two-goal performances by the Penguins' Jordan Staal and James Neal and the Flyers' Daniel Briere and Max Talbot, but the gloves-off showdown between Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Flyers alternate captain Claude Giroux, and Penguins forward Arron Asham's cross-check to the jaw of Flyers forward Brayden Schenn.
As Asham and Neal -- who hit the Flyers' Sean Couturier and received a charging penalty on Giroux in the third period -- await their hearings today with the NHL's Department of Player Safety, the natural conclusion for the league's critics to make regarding the increased national interest in Sunday's game is that thuggery sells more than skills.
"Sometimes, the game succeeds in spite of itself," said John Shannon, an analyst for Canada TV network SportsNet. "Somebody said to me yesterday, 'Isn't it great? The ratings are going through the roof.' But there's no accountability. People would actually watch a public execution, too, and we had to outlaw that."
Fighting always has been a part of NHL hockey, and it likely always will be. It's written into the game's DNA. But with the concussion issue pushing its way to the forefront more and more, can the NHL continue to stand idle? On Sunday, Crosby, Giroux, Schenn and the Penguins' Kris Letang, who received a game misconduct for fighting in the first period, were all involved in the melee. All of them have missed time this season with concussions.
Viewership may be up for the NHL, but not all of the attention is positive. On Monday afternoon, ESPN's highly popular sports debate show, "Pardon the Interruption," spent more than 3 minutes discussing the Penguins' meltdown -- they trail the Flyers 3-0 entering Wednesday's Game 4 in Philadelphia -- and the franchise's growing reputation of arrogance. Crosby's involvement just months after being saddled with concussion symptoms was a surprise to the show's co-host, Mike Wilbon.
"[Wayne] Gretzky and [Mario] Lemieux didn't do stuff like this," Wilbon said.
That Lemieux's name surfaced was fitting. As a player, Lemieux lashed out against the dirty culture of the NHL, calling it a "garage league." Now, as an owner, Lemieux has remained outwardly against it. In February 2011, the Penguins lost to the New York Islanders, 9-3, in a game that featured 346 penalty minutes, and Lemieux issued a statement.
"Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be," he said. "But what happened ... on Long Island wasn't hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that."
Lemieux went on to say that game made him question whether he wanted to be a part of the NHL anymore. Sunday, he had to watch his franchise engage in a similarly ghastly performance on a much bigger stage.
On Monday, coach Dan Bylsma said he wasn't proud of any of what happened on the ice Sunday but defended his players, saying they "desperately want to win and are desperately playing. The emotions boil over in a situation like that."
He also defended Crosby.
"I think a little bit of what we saw was him trying to spark our team and trying to get back in this thing and scratch and claw to do it. I think that's a lot of what I saw from him. More calculated than losing emotional control."
NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, who helped the Penguins win two Stanley Cups as an assistant coach and scout in 1991 and '92, said that the marquee players in this series are a large part of why things escalated so quickly Sunday.
"The difference you have in this series is you've got star players on both sides that aren't afraid to push back," McGuire said. "And in a lot of situations, star players usually have people that can ride shotgun for them and do a lot of heavy lifting. When star players push back, that gets everyone juiced up, including the tough guys."
To those in the game, fighting is just the byproduct of men playing a boys game in front of raucous crowds who can come off as downright bloodthirsty.
"I don't think it turns people off," said former player Nick Kypreos, now an analyst for SportsNet. "All they saw is how much the game means to the players.
"And it's not for everybody. If you don't have the stomach to watch the passion and emotion that these guys have on every shift, don't watch it."
More people watched Sunday than they had in a decade, but Shannon isn't convinced that the display will bring in many new fans.
"I believe in the game of hockey, and there is so much opportunity in the United States to grow the game," Shannon said. "Sometimes, we don't do a very good job of growing it because we only cater to the hard-core fan first. [Sunday] was a cater-to-the-hard-core-fan day."
Shannon worked as the NHL's vice president of broadcasting during 2006-09. He knows what the conversations were like Monday in New York at the league office -- and what they'll continue to be like until the right balance is found.
"The concern with the NHL would be, how do we control the chaos?" Shannon said. "Certain things are inherent in the game. Fighting is going to be a part of the game. Intimidation is going to be part of the game. But there are things that cross the line."
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.