EVERYBODY HAS A theory, an innovation that will bring the NHL to national prominence. Some big, some small.

Designate a weekly hockey night, former Flyers captain Keith Primeau says. That's how his family - like so many others - came to love the game in Canada.

Focus on the barely breathing small-market teams, a sports business expert at Temple University says.

And why not give the viewer a window into the players' personalities during the broadcast? Rick Tocchet, who has spent 27 years in the NHL as a player and a coach and is now an analyst for Comcast SportsNet, remembers seeing Flyers captain Dave Poulin take seven needles to his ribs before every game of the 1987 Stanley Cup finals.

"Just to watch him getting those needles in and him cringing every time just to play," Tocchet said, "there are so many of those stories of guys playing hurt."

Midas-touch solutions have been circulating since the lockout derailed interest in 2004. But right now the NHL can seemingly do no wrong. Record playoff ratings. Buildings filled to capacity during the postseason. Increases in merchandise sales, corporate sponsorships and NHL.com advertising revenue and page views. Double the number of subscribers for the NHL Network. Numbers are trending upward across the board.

Still, the big picture remains foggy. The lasting impact of a thrilling playoffs and the Stanley Cup finals between the Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks, both in major media markets, is an unknown. Is the league in the midst of a Great Awakening? Or is this year's wire-to-wire postseason merely a swig of Red Bull that will have the league crashing back to earth next season?

The answer is up for debate.

"This type of series, this type of matchup, this type of finals has the ability to make the rest of the nation aware," Primeau said.

Here in Philadelphia, interest is obvious. Streets, sidewalks and boardwalks have all turned orange and black. The Flyers' up-from-the-ashes postseason run has captivated the city.

The miraculous Game 7 victory over Boston was the most watched Flyers game in Comcast SportsNet history with an 11.6 rating (345,000 households). The previous record? For Game 6, 2 nights earlier.

"In our case, the story has been so unbelievable that people want to come check it out," said Peter Luukko, the chief operating officer of Comcast-Spectacor. "You get to the Stanley Cup finals and everybody in the market follows. But with the unbelievable run and almost not getting into the playoffs, the script has been outstanding."

The fans continue to watch here and nationally, entering tonight's Game 4. The first two games of the series on NBC drew an average of 5.16 million viewers, the highest for the first two games on U.S. broadcast television since 1997 and a 7 percent increase over last year. Game 2 attracted 5.89 million viewers, the most for the NHL since records have been kept (since at least 1975). For Game 3, Versus was the top-rated network overall - broadcast and cable - in both Chicago and Philadelphia and delivered the best local market ratings ever for a Blackhawks or Flyers game on a cable network.

Fans are also showing their love for the Flyers on their heads and backs or with pucks and patches. Long lines snaked from the merchandise tent in the Wachovia Center parking lot Wednesday night before Game 3. The NHL said yesterday that total volume for merchandise sales through three games is 4 percent higher than through all seven of last year's finals between Detroit and Pittsburgh. In-arena sales are up 137 percent over last year, the league said.

The Game 3 attendance of 20,297 was the most ever for an NHL game in Pennsylvania.

"Our goal is to grow the scope of the league," said Shawn Tilger, the Flyers' senior vice president of business operations. "The thing that you see growing is more people watching on television, listening on the radio, more buy tickets and merchandise and more participate in the sport whether it's street hockey or ice hockey.

"The league's growth has been tremendous over the past few years. The series helps, but overall the scale of the league has been growing with new media advances and the way fans consume the product."

The NHL's embrace of new media also has been a success. NHL.com revenue is up 50 percent over last year; unique visitors surpassed last year's record by 32 percent; subscriptions to NHL Game Center Live were up 25 percent.

"We believe that we have the best game, the best players, the best entertainment experience in sports," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. "And the more people get a chance to connect it to and sample it, we think the more they're going to engage."

While hockey has never seemed so alive, Dr. Aubrey Kent, the director of Temple's Sport Industry Research Center, points out that the rocketing ratings could be a partial smokescreen. The Blackhawks' emergence might be distorting reality. For years, the team was (literally) hidden from the public. Bill Wirtz, the team's owner of 41 years, blacked out his team's games on local television, following the archaic belief that fans wouldn't pay for tickets if they could see games on TV for free.

Then, in a flash, it all changed.

Chicago struck gold in the NHL draft with Jonathan Toews (2006, third overall) and Patrick Kane (2007, first overall). After Wirtz died of cancer in 2007, his son, Rocky, took over. And a hit new sitcom - "Live Hockey!" - was introduced to the third-largest city in the United States.

"Once they got on TV, created a buzz and became a competitive team," Kent said, "they had a perfect storm to create one of the best hockey markets there is right now."

In one sense, the Blackhawks' sudden emergence is obviously good for the NHL. Chicago's youth against the Flyers' heart is turning into an instant-classic Stanley Cup finals. But the ratings do cloud one problem. A third of the league needs help fast. The Phoenix Coyotes, for example, are on the verge of losing $20 million despite finishing fourth in the Western Conference. A move to Winnipeg could be looming.

"The league is strong 18, 20 teams deep," Kent said. "The bottom third - Nashville, Miami, Long Island, Carolina, Tampa Bay, those teams - are really weak in their fundamentals."

Primeau, who played 2 seasons for the Carolina Hurricanes before 6 years with the Flyers, saw this passivity up close. At times, "there was no interest at all," he said. Transplanted northerners formed a Duct-taped, fragmented fan base that only rallied when the team won. Winning alone is often the lone driving force for small-market teams.

At times, Primeau said he didn't feel like a pro athlete.

"It was difficult," he said. "You're trying to recognize that you're still a professional athlete. You just weren't playing in a professional league market at the time. Philadelphia changed all that for me. It's a huge sports town and a huge Flyers town."

Building an identity takes time. The Flyers' blue-collar brand of today started decades ago.

"Hockey is this city's kind of sport," Luukko said. "It is hard-working, team guys that do anything for the team. That's why the fans really relate to our players."

Thus, teams like the Flyers can survive losing seasons. Not so in other cities. Kent said fringe-market teams must popularize the sport at the grassroots level. Take the baby steps that slowly build a hockey town.

"They have to build a loyal following from the ground up," Kent said. "They have to have kids that grow up, play the sport, idolize players and then pass it on to their kids when they're old enough to have them."

For now, there's reason for the league to be optimistic. Unlike the NBA - which was dulled down by three sweeps in the quarterfinals - the NHL's quarterfinal round drew the best ratings on cable since 2002, said Versus president Jamie Davis. The semifinals generated the most interest since ratings were first recorded in 1993-94. And the current Cup final is shattering records on a game-to-game basis.

"It's not just the Stanley Cup," Davis said. "This whole postseason has been absolutely fantastic [for business] . . . And despite big-name teams like the Red Wings, Capitals and Penguins being out, we've had great stories with the Flyers meeting up with the Blackhawks."

Will it last? Maybe the NHL is simply leaning on a big-market crutch. Warm-weather teams are bound to sneak back into the finals.

The NHL might reach its ceiling, well short of the popularity and reach of the other major pro sports. But this year's postseason clearly offers a chance at growth. The league is on a rise. More people are watching, more people care.

How the league harnesses this renewed fervor remains to be seen.

"When you get momentum and have a great series like it's going to be here, you have to parlay it," Tocchet said. "Whether it's marketing the players that were in this finals or looking at different ways to do hockey coverage, keep it going.

"Keep the fire going."

Mike Mazzeo contributed to this report.