NHL hockey may not be the most popular of the North American major sports (MLB, NFL, and NBA)—heck, it's not even close to fourth on the list. It's the little sport that is completely misunderstood, like the indie rock band who rocks your boots off but doesn't fit the mainstream.
The past decade and more has included a shortened season, a lockout, and numerous rule changes with which Gary Bettman has tried to sell hockey to Americans (I understand there are many hockey fans south of the border).
I have this advice: Gary, don't bother—they're not buying.
The hockey fan is wired in a completely different way than any other sports fan. As a matter of fact, the professional hockey player is wired completely different than his peers in professional sports. We've all witnessed a star shortstop in baseball put on the DL with a hangnail issue, yet NHL players sometimes don't miss a shift after taking a puck to the face.
If NHL hockey was easily sold to non-hockey fans, the NHL would only need to use a clip or two from a playoff game. There is no other sport that sees a spike in game speed, intensity, willingness, personal sacrifice, and commitment to winning, from the regular season to the playoffs, like hockey.
In MLB, pitches don't get any faster; home runs don't travel any further. NFL players don't hit more often, and QBs don't throw further; and the NBA simply plays four to seven games that resemble regular-season games, albeit against the same opponent.
Hockey sees a transformation in players, game speed, and drama. During the week to two-week span, the way these teams compete is like a mini soap opera where enemies form, lies are told, insults are relayed, and confessions are made.
Players transform from finesse players to sadists. In Game One of the Blackhawks-Canucks series, Kyle Wellwood, notorious for being out of shape, lazy, and generally a wimp in his years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, was the victim of two high-sticking infractions both worthy of four-minute penalty calls because blood was drawn, and he was seen on the bench being attended to by a trainer.
He simply plucked out one of his newly loosened teeth, handed it to the trainer, and was on the ice not a minute later on the very power play created by his now-missing tooth.
Chipper Jones once missed an NLCS game because he claimed his fat lip obstructed his view of the incoming pitch!
The road to the Stanley Cup, a 30-pound trophy on which the individual player names of the champions are engraved, is by far the most grueling and difficult championship to win. Four physically demanding series are played to get there. If you watch one team's journey, you can literally witness the players getting more and more physically mutilated as the playoffs carry on.
The playoff beard is a longstanding tradition amongst hockey players. They grow out their facial hair until they are eliminated or win the Stanley Cup. But I believe the beard is more a form of protection than it is a rally sign or superstition.
If you ever find yourself in a position whereby you are trying to convince someone to give NHL hockey a chance, make sure it's springtime, the best time to be a hockey fan.