This has never been true in Canada, but in the US, hockey has always been an "alternative" sport. The NHL has enjoyed impressive popularity (early- to mid-1990s) and also media whipping-boy status (the lockout of 2004-05 to the present). Despite the wide range of attention and coverage over the years, hockey never reached true mainstream status in the US.
I first discovered hockey when I was 12 years old, sometime during 1991. The Penguins would win their first Stanley Cup that year, and my first favorite player ever was Brett Hull. He scored 86 goals that season as part of the "Hull And Oates Line". Wayne Gretzky was still a dominant offensive force and tallied 163 points in his third year with the Kings.
Where I grew up, hockey didn't exist, except at a couple of local sports cards stores, and even then, the hockey edition of the Beckett price guide magazine was way back in the back with strange cards bearing names like "Pro Set" and "O-Pee-Chee", not the Topps and Donruss we were used to. All of my friends were sports junkies like me, but I was the only one into hockey. The other kids didn't understand the sport and didn't really care.
A couple of years later the sport was growing. Popularity was on the rise. The Rangers won the Cup in an amazing series that cemented Mark Messier's place in hockey lore and boosted hockey's profile---America's biggest city won sports' biggest trophy. I had more friends that liked hockey. In fact, hockey was popping up everywhere in the mid-1990s. Even Snoop Dogg was sporting a Penguins jersey (and another one I can't identify) in the video for "Gin And Juice":
Hockey was in the newspapers, on ESPN and even in rap videos. My friends that normally only cared about football and basketball were buying Devils jerseys and the awesome early hockey games for the Sega Genesis. All of my sports buddies knew who Pavel Bure was and how weird it was for Gretzky to be wearing a Blues uniform.
But hockey never lost its niche appeal. It remained a sport not everyone knew about, and those who followed it felt a little like rebels. We few hockey fans, young as we were, felt like we belonged to a secret society of people who understood what a real sport was all about. We could talk about baseball all day with our dads, but hockey was ours. Just ours.
Fast forward to today. Hockey is definitely still a niche, but not a niche people are willing to embrace anymore. Instead, it's a niche that gets no respect or appreciation---and hardly any publicity in the US at all, unless it's negative. The fans themselves obsess over inconsequential rule changes and penalty calls and the minutia of neutral zone defensive strategies. Instead of embracing the sport as it is, boosting the stars and embracing the teams, they clamor for some kind of magic formula that will instantly turn the NHL into the NFL.
Shut up already. The niche appeal of hockey is what made it cool enough for Snoop Dogg (of all people) to embrace in the mid-90s, even when he and his fellow gangstas were pioneering new forms of cool all by themselves. In fact, Snoop seems like the only one who still gets it today:
We could all learn a thing or two from Snoop.