I just think the league over-estimated the appeal of hockey to the American masses, with the rampant expansion and generous ESPN exposure of the past. They were shocked, I believe, when the TV-viewing public avoided those broadcasts like they were transmitting a highly drug-resistant form of tuberculosis, through your TV set. It's not the first time a sport overreached its rabid fan-base, thinking that because a certain number of people spent lots of money and time supporting their favorite teams, that meant there was a vast, untapped-reservoir of people across the continent who would quickly buy in.
The period most of today's fans think of as "The Golden Years" was the wild-and-woolly '80's, with the high-scoring games, crazy talents like Gretzky and Lemieux, and of course the Goon Squad duking it out in practically every game, often several times a game. Locally, Detroit never won a Cup in the '80's or early '90's, but most of the older fans still think of those days with extreme nostalgia. The young Yzerman, the Bruise Brothers (Probie and Kocur), an interchangeable cast of supporting players, the wacky Jacques Demers raving behind the bench, occasionally throwing his glasses onto the ice...those were very entertaining times, and we even had a couple of years where a Cup seemed possible. The year we took Edmonton 7 games, for example, before they won yet another one.
Going back further, to the '60's and '70's, the first period of expansion, there were lots of colorful stars, lots of violence, hated (read: successful) franchises like the Habs, Bruins, Flyers and Islanders. That's when I was playing organized hockey, and becoming a lifelong-fan.
Kids today have a lot more entertainment choices, and most would probably rather play video-game hockey than real hockey, in the US. Or some other video game. There are still a lot of youngsters playing hockey, and the game has spread to the south and west with a degree of success, but it's never going to be remotely as popular as the NFL, NBA and MLB, in the US. That dream is over.
It will be interesting to see what kind of municipal outpouring of love and support will greet the Los Angeles Ducks Of Anaheim, or whatever their official name is these days, when they return home with the Cup. Will there be 100 people at the airport? Or, will they declare it a citywide holiday, and hold a huge rally downtown (downtown where?), as they do in real hockey cities? No offense to Burgie and Duckie, you're both "real fans" in every sense, but I've seen the pitiful coverage given to the team in the written media down there, next to the Arena Football scores.
After a 42-year absence, Lord Stanley's Cup returned to the Motor City in 1997 when the Detroit Red Wings swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL playoffs. It's believed that more than a million people lined both sides of Woodward.