Here’s a theoretical question for you: if the NHL playoffs are going on right now, but you can’t find them on TV, are they still happening? In case you hadn’t noticed, the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Mighty Ducks are on a collision course for a Western Conference Finals matchup. As little as three or four years ago, this would have been a big deal. The Bay Area and the L.A. area would be facing off once again, except this time a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals would be up for grabs. So why doesn’t anybody care? Well, sadly, all the blame can be placed on one group and one group only: the NHL itself.

For those of you who are still reading this column after realizing that it’s about hockey, I’ll break things down for you. About three years ago, The NHL made the brilliant decision to cancel an entire season because of a number of disputes between the owners and the players. It was only logical that the league would suffer some ill effects when games finally resumed, but you can’t always count on logic winning out when millionaires are arguing with billionaires. After the first full season cancellation in major professional sports, the NHL figured that a new crop of stars and a higher scoring game would phase out any ill will that remained from the fans.

They were partially right; dynamic young players like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin rejuvenated the on-ice product, but the league forgot about one very important marketing detail. How can you possibly expect to bring back your fans when you negotiate a TV deal with Versus over ESPN? Following the lockout, the NHL turned down an offer from ESPN and instead went with a slightly higher paying offer from Versus. In case you’re not familiar with Versus, you can find it right between ABC Family and the TV Guide channel at the depths of your TV dial. Sounds like a logical place for a sport that used to compete with the NBA for ratings, right?

The problem is that no matter how much money they make from Versus, the NHL simply cannot thrive without the nonstop exposure that ESPN provides. The network rules over the sporting scene like Charles Barkley at a Vegas buffet. Without being a nightly fixture on one of ESPN’s 73 channels, the NHL has no hope of regaining its status as a mainstream sport. Hopefully the NHL will realize its mistake and do what it takes to get back on normal channels. Until then, I guess I’ll just have to settle for searching for Versus every time I get the urge to watch the Sharks.

Daily Nexus sports columnist Alex Pavlovic has no qualms about bringing the Barkley-Bay Area feud to the sports page, even if it ends up costing him his spot in Chucky’s “five”.