I've heard it suggested that the reason the NHL hasn't caught on in the South is because the kids can't play it without any ice or snow. I personally think that's bullshit, since I don't think I've ever touched a football in my life. Maybe the NHL needs to adopt a convoluted and insane championship system! :)
But if that does explain the unpopularity of the NHL in the south, tell me what you think of this idea: Put ice rinks in YMCAs, youth centers, standalone buildings, and the like in southern, warm-weather cities. They can be used for anything - figure skating, hockey, even just skating for fun, like on dates and the like. Maybe start some small youth hockey leagues while you're at it, even if you can field only two teams at first with no subs.
Over time, once the kids have a place to play, maybe it can help make the NHL a reasonably national sport and return it to the Big Four so it doesn't have so many problems like getting jerked around the schedule so it's not Conan's leadin, bumped for Yanni, mired on Versus, and other such stupid, stupid, idiotic things.
(Actually, having the same teams as last year could serve as a good control for whether NBC's first two games should be 1 and 2 instead of 3 and 4 long-term, a change I've liked for at least a year no matter what circumstances brought it about. And I personally think that in the age of the Internet, buzz and word-of-mouth could eventually turn the NHL into a fairly national sport anyway. Seems everyone on the Internet likes the NHL, except for some NBA partisans - each side seems to want to turn any mention of either league on Sports Media Watch into a "my league rulz your league sux" shoutfest.)