Coming out of the lost 2004-05 lockout season, the NHL took a serious look how fans were interacting with the league.

“We saw you couldn’t depend on anybody else who would tell you the stories of what had happened the night before in the NHL,” explains John Collins, chief operating officer of the NHL. “You weren’t getting that from your local news and you weren’t getting it from ‘SportsCenter.’ There was a big void there, and the only way we were going to change that was if we provided that, if we served the fan in that way.”

That meant changing the league from a licensing model to becoming a media company, producing and distributing its content directly to fans and creating opportunities for advertisers at the same time.

Assets such as the NHL Network, which offers detailed highlights and news as well as live games, has become a valuable asset that pays off for the league in multiple ways, says Tim Leiweke, prexy and CEO of AEG Worldwide and a top Los Angeles Kings exec.

“It gives us the ability to have a channel that we own that not only will dramatically increase in value and be a valuable resource for all of the 30 owners, but it also serves the demand hockey junkies have in the U.S. on a daily basis,” he says.

Digital offerings such as video content on NHL.com, the online game-streaming subscription service “NHL GameCenter Live” and mobile content have all grown rapidly. NHL.com reports average monthly unique visitors grew 30% in 2010-11 over the previous season, while subs to “GameCenter” rose 37%.

Leiweke says the Kings mirrored the NHL’s commitment to digital media, leading to the team hiring a full staff and beat writer to create in-depth news and video access that fans weren’t getting from the local media. That’s resulted in LAKings.com recording a million unique visitors per month.

“I think that’s directly tied into the fact that the NHL has control of its own destiny, and is spending a large amount of resources toward making sure that NHL.com has great unique content and is one of the best sites for hockey,” he says.

Collins says the league’s media sales-sharing deal with NBC, under which the Peacock will handle ad sales for all platforms — from mobile and online to broadcasts on the Web — generates even more potential for the league.

“(NBC is) going to market with about $2 billion worth of ad sales this year, with the Olympics and the Super Bowl and Sunday Night Football,” Collins says of NBC. “We want the NHL to be positioned alongside those marquee properties.”

Digital media has extended the NHL’s reach across the Atlantic to its growing fan base in Europe. The Kings started this season playing an exhibition match in Hamburg, Germany, and will open the regular season with games against the New York Rangers in Stockholm and the Buffalo Sabres in Berlin.

Leiweke says the league has done a good job in taking charge of its brand and developing media strategies that will continue to build its fan base in Europe.

Collins says there is still a lot of work to be done on the media side, but the NHL is pleased with its success so far.

“From a market standpoint, seeing the fan base grow and the events become bigger, particularly the Stanley Cup, I think our sport is well positioned in the digital age,” he says.

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