PHILADELPHIA

Five years after hockey's Silent Spring, the lockout that erased the 2004-05 NHL season seemed like a very long time ago at the Wachovia Center last night.

On a raucous, memorable and in the end peculiar evening in south Philadelphia, hockey capped a six-month stretch that demonstrated it has come all the way back.

And the finale was fitting: The Blackhawks, a venerable Original Six institution that not long ago was a wreck of a franchise, completed their revival by winning their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

The last time was before Michael Jordan was born, and when future Bears coach Mike Ditka was preparing for his first season in the NFL - as a player.

And when the Cubs . . . well, they already had gone 53 years since winning the World Series by then.

So there the Blackhawks were, ending the second-longest Cup drought in history to the Rangers' 54 years between 1940 and '94.

The fact Chicago won it against another venerable franchise that had waited decades to win a Cup added to the drama, and the fact they needed overtime was appropriate given the closeness of the series.

The only downer was that the game ended on a strange, confusing note, with the winning score coming without a signal from a referee or a red light.

But it counted, giving Philadelphia fans a chance to boo NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, boo Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews, boo Blackhawks fans in the arena and boo the Cup itself.

"There is no doubting the passion of Philadelphia fans," Bettman deadpanned before handing the Cup to Toews.

The NHL's excellent 2010 adventure began on New Year's Day with the latest iteration of the Winter Classic, this time at Fenway Park, with the hometown Bruins winning in overtime.

It continued at the Olympics in Vancouver, which could not have been scripted more favorably for the best interests of North American hockey.

Canada, the home country, won the gold medal in overtime over the United States, and the winning goal was scored by the sport's current golden boy, Sidney Crosby. Viewership in the United States was the highest for a hockey game since Team USA won Olympic gold in 1980.

Now this.

After the Canadiens took out Alex Ovechkin's Capitals and Crosby's Penguins in the first two rounds, the league and its television partners were facing a potential ratings catastrophe and came perilously close to a Sharks-Canadiens final.

Instead they got a matchup of two traditional franchises that happen to represent two of the five biggest TV markets in the United States.

All of this has been reflected in the ratings, which have been strong by hockey's modest standards - and sometimes beyond hockey's normal standards.

Earlier in the playoffs, the Bruins easily out-rated the Celtics and Red Sox in the Boston market when the three teams went head-to-head-to-head.

Sure, there are limits to hockey's popularity in the United States, as there always have been. And hockey has done plenty to shoot itself in the skates over the years, never more so than in that lost season five years ago.

But the sport and its fans always manage to bounce back, as they showed again last night.

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