The NHL lockout has officially postponed the start of the regular season, but a cancelled season will be the kiss of death for a league that is already in trouble.
This isn't the first journey down this road for the NHL.
It was another lockout that caused the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season and, since then, things have never really been the same.
Fan interest in the sport has waned in almost every case, except among the hardcore hockey fans that have remained and will remain no matter what happens.
But it's the widespread lack of interest of casual hockey fans that has created a ton of problems for the NHL. Chalk it up to whatever you like, but the sport isn't enjoying the same widespread fanbase it used to and won't survive with just a cult-like following.
For one thing, it's difficult to even find a hockey game on national television anymore, with the exception of the playoffs. After the cancelled season of 2004-05, the NHL lost its television deal with ESPN, which no doubt hurt the league's exposure.
Most games are on an individual team's own network, and the rest are on obscure channels that not every viewer can—or even knows how to—access.
That fact is mainly as a result of the lack of ratings the sport is receiving after the last lockout, and it continues until this day. There was hope after this past season, however, as ratings began to improve with the success of some big-market teams.
Should the 2012-13 season be cancelled, it will be the second lost season in less than a decade. Such a scenario would shake the sport to its very core and would erase all the gains the sport made in the ratings department last season.
Casual fans will further push the memory of the NHL to the back of their minds. Not playing this season would make the sport irrelevant for an entire year, helping shift the focus to other sports in the country that are actually playing.
That certainly won't help ratings in the least bit—as was the case after the last lockout—and even the most random of television channels might not find it worth carrying NHL games anymore.
If that's the case, the league's exposure will be crushed even more.
Another cancelled season will be a huge blow to the NHL—one the league can't afford. If hockey wants to remain relevant and in the national consciousness, both sides of this lockout must come to an agreement before it's too late.