Despite the US having 24 of 30 NHL teams, countless minor league franchises, and a few hotbeds of college and even high school hockey, the popularity of the game below the 49th parallel is severely lacking, keeping it a so-called "niche sport". From my position as an American hockey fan, I hope to shed some light on this unfortunate phenomenon.
In the abstract, hockey seems to have all the ingredients for wild success in the US: speed, hard physical contact, beauty, plenty of hard-working, blue-collar-type players, and a rich history. Yet, it still flounders below not only other team sports, but also major "motorsports", on the nationwide radar.
Cutting to the chase, I'll tell you this: Yes, Americans like it loud, fast, and violent. However, they also like it simple.
The average American sports fan craves the Happy Meal approach to sports: the ability to encapsulate the essence of a game into a series of highlights, with the snappy patter of the talking head du jour. The touchdown, homerun, and slamdunk are the McNuggets that keep them coming back. The special sauce is the "personalities" that perform these feats.
The broadening appeal of NASCAR is living proof of this model. The basic function, driving a car, is something any American of age can identify with, and they can latch on to the face/number of the individual driver. Here, then is a "niche sport" that has made good by being the perfect mix for the drive-thru that is SportsCenter.
Where hockey suffers (as does soccer, in fact) is that, to the unsophisticated viewer, all the highlights look the same: "a guy scored a goal." The nature of the free-flowing team aspect of the game is lost on the armchair consumer. As hockey fans can tell you (and colo(u)r commentators often do): "a big save at one end of the ice often leads to a great chance at the other end" or "that won't show up on the scoresheet, but he made that goal possible". Such a sequence of events--a mere two of about a zillion possible permutations in any given hockey game--can't be summed up for the casual observer. It requires an amount of awareness of how one event relates to another in the flow of the game.
There are those who might counter that there is a great deal of complexity which leads to scoring in baseball and football. I would counter that there is, however: in baseball, the pace of the game allows you plenty of time to figure out every possible angle; and in football, I doubt many casual fans could adequately explain the intricacies of effective blocking schemes. What gets latched onto is the individual who makes things happen: the quarterback, running back, or receiver; or the homerun hitter; or the high-flying slamdunk artiste. So, then, another huge component to success with the American fan is the ability to single out individuals to adore.
This has been an ongoing argument: the NHL needs to better market its individual stars to the American audience. I'd say it can be universally agreed that this has not happened. Case in point: arguably the biggest star in the game today is Sidney Crosby. Word is, he an his Penguins will begin next season overseas. If the NHL schedules two European games, as they did in London, that will mean that Crosby will have played more regular season games in Prague than in each of the following NHL venues:
That's 15 out of 30, folks. For a league with a serious problem with lack of exposure in North America, that's simply inexcusable.
Beyond the marketing ineptitude of the NHL, a major stumbling block with American audiences is the international makeup of the game. It's highly unlikely that a broad cross-section of the potential American fanbase is going to latch onto a player named Kovalchuk or Jokinen--or even a Brind'Amour or Lecavalier--when there are plenty of Johnsons or Gordons to be had.
Which leads directly into the twin topics of infrastructure and demographics. Hockey simply does not have the footholds shared by baseball, football, and basketball in the most fertile ground for broad sporting appeal in the US: the inner city. A significant number of high-profile performers in those three sports emerge from these areas of the US, thanks in no small part to easy access to these sports at the youth level. All you need: football, a ball and open space; baseball, a bat and ball and open space; basketball, a ball and a hoop on some open space. For ice hockey, you only need a puck, 10-12 sticks, 10-12 sets of skates and a safe sheet of ice. Yes, street hockey is also a possibility, but that still requires the multiple sticks... and good luck finding brave souls to be padless goaltenders. A large section of the fanbase, then, can more easily identify with someone who could play their sport with what the fans have on hand, rather than someone who arrives for each game wearing thousands of dollars worth of armor. That's even before you factor in the differences in terms of ethnic participation between the professional sports.
To sum up, the American sports fan at large prefers the 3-chord heavy metal of football; the hip-hop beats of basketball; the power ballads of baseball; or the up-tempo bluegrass of NASCAR; to the intricate symphony of hockey, crashing cymbals and all.
With that said, it's a credit to the great game of hockey that it continues to do well despite this seemingly massive and natural obstacle. For it to continue to do so, and thrive, as well, it's up to the NHL to do a better job of reaching out for new fans--not trying to cater to them.