The essential question facing NHL owners and locked-out players is: Who cares?

If they think there will be a ground swell of support for either side, fans camping out and begging them to return, a stream of stories in newspapers or on television lamenting their absence, they're living in a fantasy.

Hard-core hockey fans, especially in Canada and longtime bastions of the game in the United States, may be saddened by the lockout. But they've seen this stubborn and foolish clash of wills before and will wait it out without much grief.

They'll get their fix with minor league or European games, and watch the NHL again next year or the year after or whenever the two sides decide they've inflicted so much unnecessary pain on each other that it's time to settle.

Casual hockey fans, the ones the NHL needs in order to grow, will blithely drift away to other sports and activities.

To the majority of American sports fans, for whom hockey was largely irrelevant anyway, the NHL will be unmissed and fade in memory.

The NHL probably is not in danger of dying away, but every labor-management train wreck in sports derails leagues for a long time. Baseball, which has a far greater fan base than hockey, didn't feel a recovery from the 1994-95 labor war until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa went on home run tears in 1998. The NHL won't be getting back its alienated casual fans anytime soon.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners are acutely aware of the damage that hockey could sustain with a prolonged lockout. Still, they've decided that whatever that damage may be, there's worse damage to be incurred by continuing the current labor arrangement. For many owners, there's more money to be lost in playing than in not playing.

"The players have seriously overestimated the value of hockey here in the United States," said media consultant and former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson. "The players have to come to realize that we're not Canada. We don't have the level of interest in hockey that the Canadian players are used to experiencing when they live in Canada. When they go to the supermarket here, nobody knows them. They're making a serious miscalculation about whether there will be media and public pressure on the league to settle."

Pilson counts himself as one of those hard-core fans who will miss the NHL and watch it again when it resumes. He's been going to hockey games since he was a child, recalling trips to see the New York Rovers of the Eastern Hockey League in 1946.

"I love the game," he said. "It has a level of intensity and required commitment from athletes that is unlike any other game. But the American sports consumer has a lot of choices, and I'm afraid hockey is going to be severely damaged by the lockout."

Pilson is hardly the only observer who thinks that way.

"The public response is going to be apathy — Who cares?," said Nye Lavalle, president of the Sports Marketing Group. "There aren't that many people interested in hockey. They're practically not going to know it's gone.

"The people who do like to watch hockey will watch it wherever it is. The minor leagues are growing because they don't charge $75 or $150 a game. They're affordable and fun."

Those who follow hockey understand the dilemma facing owners who are trying to contain their costs and players who refuse to accept a salary cap.

"The issue is as simple as this: There is no additional base of income for hockey," Pilson said. "There's no pot of gold out there that some new leadership or new direction is going to develop.

"Hockey has tapped out on attendance. They're at more than 90 percent league-wide. They've tapped out on sponsor dollars. They've tapped out on regional sports television. And they have obviously tapped out on network television, which is going backward with no rights fees."

At the heart of hockey's TV problems in the United States, Pilson said, is the fact that most Americans have never played hockey.

"Hockey suffers from more of a disconnect between viewers and players than any other major sport," he said. "A lot of Americans have thrown and caught a football, maybe played touch football. They've played baseball or softball. They've played basketball. There's an appreciation for golf. There's very little understanding or appreciation of hockey if you've never played it."

The players and owners have gotten themselves stuck in a quagmire. Blame the players for being greedy. Blame the owners for creating the mess by bidding up salaries. There's plenty of blame to go around.

If the question is who cares, the answer must come from those very same players and owners. They have to care enough about the game and the league to find a way to live together before they take each other down.