Fans quick to shake frustration
MONTREAL—Its legions of diehard fans are quick to describe their feelings during the nearly four-month-long lockout as a painful mixture of frustration, boredom, and bitterness.
But as the National Hockey League prepares to drop its first puck of the season tomorrow, the overwhelming sentiment for many fans is one of longing for its return.
Early fan reaction suggests all is forgiven for hordes of people in hockey’s heartlands.
“To us, honestly, we sweep it under the rug—it’s all good,” said Canadiens’ buff Chris Bonnier, one of hundreds of people who watched a team training session earlier this week at the club’s practice facility in suburban Montreal.
“We’re just more enthusiastic right now, man, because it’s been nine months,” he noted.
“So we’re ready to go, ready to see some hockey.”
A new poll suggests a strong majority of Canadian hockey fans will keep watching when the NHL returns—despite the league’s third work stoppage in 20 years.
It also suggested the widespread rage expressed by fans during the labour dispute may not have been as significant as expected, at least not in Canada.
“It’s a business and sometimes in business there’s disagreements and that,” reasoned Michael Larson, a Vancouver Canucks’ fan who took in an open Flames’ practice this week in Calgary with his eight-year-old son, Ethan.
“But we understand and we’re excited that they’re back.”
While NHL loyalty seems strong in northern cities, some have expressed concern over potential damage for teams in non-traditional hockey markets.
NHL clubs have rushed to offer goodies to fans in an attempt to reverse any hard feelings inflicted by the lockout.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, offered 200 season tickets at just $200 each. The team said it also would throw in a $25 gift card at its official merchandise store.
The Columbus Blue Jackets plan to give away free stuff—including a T-shirt, a drink, popcorn, and a hotdog—to each fan at its home-opener.
Other teams have tried to make fans happy by opening up practices and scrimmages to the public, and offering 50 percent discounts on merchandise.
One frustrated hockey enthusiast in L.A., however, doesn’t think the outreach will be enough.
The creator of a popular campaign, which hopes to make the NHL think twice about shutting down the game in the future, believes the latest lockout has hurt hockey’s chances of expanding in its fragile markets.
“The growth of the game is desperately in trouble,” argued Steve Chase, who initiated the “Just Drop It” campaign.
“You can’t do this and grow the game—you just can’t.”
The “Just Drop It” movement calls on frustrated fans to pledge to stop buying NHL merchandise, and to refrain from attending and watching on TV during the first 10 games of the season.
Nearly 23,000 have clicked “like” on the campaign’s Facebook page to signify their intention to take the pledge, said Chase, a Montreal-born hockey fan who moved to L.A. years ago.
The movement hopes those disgruntled fans will send a message to the NHL by putting a minor dent in its bottom line.
Chase said the L.A. Kings’ exciting run to the Stanley Cup title last year boosted the team’s presence beyond its typically marginal status in a city where hockey coverage is anchored to the back page of the sports section.
But the former Kings’ season-ticket holder believes the lockout has tripped up that momentum. After a brief period of excitement, people in the California city no longer are talking about the reigning champs, he added.
“That’s here and the Kings won the Cup,” noted Chase, who directs commercials.
“I can’t imagine what’s going on in Florida and Carolina—cities where it’s a novelty act already.”
NHL attendance bounced back in 2005-06 after the previous season was cancelled due to a lockout. Most clubs, in fact, actually saw their attendance increase that year.