NHL's Biggest Problem As Lockout Draws On: Most People Don't Care

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, arrives with deputy commissioner Bill Daly, right, as the NHL and its locked-out player
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, arrives with deputy commissioner Bill Daly, right, as the NHL and its locked-out player resume negotiations in Toronto on Wednesday Oct. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)

The NHL has a major problem which has become glaringly obvious as its lockout extends: People don't care.

If you take a look at trending topics on Twitter, or on Google Trends, or what the majority of America cares about right now -- the NHL is not on the radar.

That's even after all the latest build-up. The two sides were talking again this week, and a "50/50" offer to save the full season raised fans' hopes. That was all for naught, apparently, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said today they're not close and "it's clear we're not even speaking the same language," per The Globe & Mail.

OK, people in Canada care. Hockey fans care. I care. But is there a critical mass up in arms about the lockout? Not even close.

Players can see that too.

"People don't care as much this time around -- that's what's scary," Brendan Morrison told the National Post. "Last time, people were in an uproar, right? This time around, I don't sense that as much."

A growing list of players have fled overseas and are having a good time.

The NHL is trying to fight its way back to relevance, particularly in the United States. It had years of growth following the cancellation of the '04-'05 season, even after ESPN pulled the plug on it. It was a good start.

And then it decided to erase all of its progress with its fourth work stoppage in 20 years. Not a good idea.

When you're competing against the big three in American sports -- the NFL, MLB, and NBA -- you can't afford to take time off.

Intense competition like that requires extra time, overtime if you will, not time off. Time off just makes the sport fade into the oblivion. It becomes a punch line. A joke. That league, that sometimes plays, and sometimes doesn't.

It's that league that has been demoted from the CBS Sports top nav, hidden by NCAA football, NCAA basketball, golf, NASCAR and high school.

As SB Nation's Travis Hughes rightly noted on Twitter, Gary Bettman has been through this a few times before. The fact that he says he doesn't know the next step says a lot.

No one is hurting more than our friends to the north. But at least they have multiple other hockey leagues like the OHL and WHL that are getting more attention than ever.

And in the United States, there's the AHL. It has a real opportunity to "cash in" on its parent league's silliness, Bleacher Report notes.

This doesn't help the National Hockey League's cause in becoming a premier league in North America. When it comes back -- if it comes back -- the diehard fans will return, of course, in my hometown of Buffalo, in Detroit, in Pittsburgh, certainly in Minnesota as the Wild made an offseason splash, some other markets in the U.S., and obviously in Canada.

But all that progress in other markets will be wiped out. Momentum lost. Start over. Again.

The NHL is already working on its messaging, both for the lockout and presumably after. With all the damage it's doing, that's just the beginning. It has a lot more work to do.

Meanwhile, the fans will spend their money elsewhere.

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