By Doug Gorman
When I was about four years old, my father took me to a playoff game between the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins at the old Arena in St. Louis.
Thirty-six years later I don't recall too much about the game except that Bobby Orr, a talented defenseman, laced up his skates for the Bruins and Gary Unger and the Plager brothers dressed out for the Blues.
Through the 1970s I was a huge hockey fan, dividing my loyalties between cheering for the Blues and then later, the Philadelphia Flyers. I went to several games and rarely missed a telecast. Blues announcer Dan Kelly may have been the best hockey announcer ever.
I loved the speed of the game, the bone-crushing hits and yes, even the fighting, something the Flyers did on a regular basis as they lived up to their nickname the "Broad Street Bullies."
I enjoyed living in Philadelphia during the Flyers' second of back-to-back Stanley Cup titles.
To this day, the United States' victory against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics ranks right up there as one of my favorite sports moments.
It was the boost our country needed as it was going through the Iranian hostage crisis.
At the time, hockey was considered a "Yankee" sport, and many who watched the United States' team skate to the Gold Medal, didn't know anything about the game, but they quickly jumped on the bandwagon, supporting this upstart group of college-aged players as they knocked off the world's best players. The victory created a much-needed sense of nationalism.
It didn't necessarily do a whole lot to boost the popularity of the game. However, in the 24 years since the Miracle on Ice, the NHL has enjoyed tremendous growth, expanding to all corners of the United States.
The game still lags behind the popularity of Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA, and it may never catch up with those three sports.
Still, the sport has expanded to cities once never thought to be hockey towns.
Let's face it, when one thinks of great hockey towns, Tampa doesn't exactly come to mind, but the Lightning are in the NHL finals, vying with Calgary for possession of the Stanley Cup.
The Lightning play in the same division as the Atlanta Thrashers, and weren't expected to go too far once the playoffs started, but after watching them knock off the Flyers to advance to the finals I started getting excited for them.
Just a few short years ago, a national sports magazine picked the Lightning as the worst pro franchise period.
It's amazing what a few short years can do for the popularity of a team. According to a friend who lives near Tampa, the city has embraced this team and hockey fever has swept through the entire area.
Still, a black cloud hangs over the NHL even as it prepares to crown its champion. Starting in the fall when players are expected to return to their teams for training camp, they might find themselves locked out. A strike is the last thing this league needs.
Other leagues have been able to recover from lockouts and strikes. The NHL can't. It doesn't have the history or the popularity of the other leagues.
A work stoppage could permanently damage the NHL, and that would be a shame, because hockey really is a great game.
Doug Gorman is the sports editor of the Daily. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.