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Ratings Armageddon was but one game away.

Had the Anaheim Ducks won in Game 7 of the Western Conference final last weekend, the NHL would have had its first all-sunbelt Stanley Cup final, a meeting between two 1990s teams that were conceived in a rocky era of mass expansion that has been derided in Canada ever since.

The hand wringing? There would have been plenty.

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Instead, the Chicago Blackhawks moved on, and they – and they alone – were expected to have to carry the freight in terms of drawing U.S. eyeballs to hockey.

After all, they were playing a team from Florida.

But a funny thing happened when the Game 1 ratings came in. By hockey standards, they were big. And they were particularly impressive in Tampa, where a record 18 per cent of households tuned in, up 50 per cent from their opener in their last trip to the finals in 2004.

Compare that with the 10 per cent of New Yorkers and 7 per cent of Angelenos who watched the first game of Kings-Rangers a year ago.

Nationally, the ratings were the second-best for Game 1 of the Cup final since 1999, beating supposed hockey-haven matchups such as Detroit-Pittsburgh and Chicago-Philadelphia.

They also far exceeded projections, including those from numbers guru Nate Silver, whose preseries forecast was 30 per cent under the 3.3 final rating, likely because of underestimating the strong interest in Tampa.

You can see that beyond the TV ratings, too. The downtown in Tampa is filled with Stanley Cup banners and signage, many cars are carrying Lightning flags, and the buzz level in the hockey arena is on par with similarly big games in more established markets.

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Twenty-three years after the league took a questionable bet on hockey, it has taken root, with the franchise's championship in 2004 playing a key role.

"There wasn't much going on when I first got here [in 2000]," said Blackhawks forward Brad Richards, who spent seven seasons in Tampa and was the MVP of that Cup win. "In '04, we really accomplished something and got something going. We had a lot of fun, coming to the rink and around town. They really saw how great hockey was by watching that run.

"It took a dip there with some questionable things going on with ownership," Richards added. "I'll put it that way. And then Jeff Vinik took it back over. What they're doing is a huge part [of this rebirth] but then the fan base we built is getting back into it again. You can just see the town loves it."

Those lean years did a disservice to this market. After the Lightning won in 2004, the NHL immediately began a year-long lockout, killing any momentum the franchise would have gained from another season with its stars still in their primes.

After some years in the wilderness, which netted them Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman high in the draft, Vinik handed the team over to GM Steve Yzerman, who transformed a struggling roster into a powerhouse through a ground-up approach focusing on the draft.

Vinik also invested in the building – upgrading it to a state-of-the-art party palace, inside and out – and the market, with a major push to get more kids playing and more rinks built in the area.

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Attendance has followed. The Lightning were ninth in the NHL during the regular season – playing at 98-per-cent capacity – which is the highest of any warm-weather team.

Not an overly large or wealthy city, Tampa has nonetheless shown it doesn't belong on a list of the league's problem children, such as Arizona or Florida.

There's even an argument to be made the Lightning have become the sport's model non-traditional market franchise. While revenues remain fairly low, they are growing. Tampa has had the highest two-year ticket-price increase in the league, putting it in the same conversation with more established "hockey" cities such as St. Louis and Denver.

The room for growth also remains massive, especially if the Lightning can win a second Stanley Cup 11 years after the first.

"You wouldn't know [in Canada]," said Richards, who is excited at the prospect of four new ice sheets being built just north of the city. "I tell people all the time it's probably a top three place to play in the NHL. I really believe that. And that's before what's happened here the last couple years [with the team's rise up the standings].

"There's a lot of people from up north that live down here. There's a lot of people that do follow hockey. Once the product on the ice is good, they come. They love going to the games. They love catching playoff hockey. It's a great city."

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It's also turning into a hockey city, bit by bit.

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