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NHL’s Next Step Is Winning Back Hardened Fans

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Flyers owner Ed Snider had a simple message on the day the NHL lockout ended:

Welcome back.

Welcome back, NHL.

Welcome back, NHL fans.

Lost in the squabble between the league and players over the 113-day labor dispute was how the hardcore fans were losing interest with each messy board room update from an idle sport. Keeping the faith turned into planning boycotts. The Winter Classic gave way to the winter doldrums for even the most passionate fans in hockey-mad markets.

Why care so much about a sport that had stuck its fans inside a penalty box for more than four months?

“I’m hoping that our fans understand this was something that had to be done for the strength of the league, for the strength of the Players Association,” Snider told The Associated Press. “I hope they don’t hold it against us and just come out and see some great hockey.

“If I had to guess, I think we’re going to be in great shape.”

One of the questions that arises now, of course, and after any sort of stoppage for that matter, is will the fans come back? This is the third labor dispute in Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure, and though the fans returned in the past, the jury is out this time.

NHL fan Steve Chase started the grass roots “Just Drop It” campaign that encouraged fans to skip one NHL game for every game canceled after Dec. 21st. He asked fans to pledge they would not spend a penny or a minute of their time on tickets, TV, merchandise, all things NHL.

More than 21,000 fans had clicked the “like” button on the group’s Facebook page by Sunday night. And Chase, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote on the site he would stay true to his commitment.

He planned to boycott in all forms at least the first 10 games of the season.

Chase said there was growing sentiment among his friends to skip the entire season. He said the league and players didn’t think enough about the part-time employees and local businesses who needed the sport to help survive the winter months.

“Our stance has always been, we don’t want to punish them, we just want hockey back,” Chase said. “It’s just a one-for-one thing. We just want to make it fair. We hoped it was going to be over before it ever got to this.”

Amid the realization they’ll have to repair the damaged relationship with the die-hards, Snider expected teams to show their gratitude for their support on opening night — and beyond.

“We will thank them for coming back, that’s for sure. We will thank the fans,” Snider, who turned 80 on Sunday, said. “They’re just great people.”

History shows the fans, dressed in team colors, standing for two anthems, will return. Likely, in record numbers.

The NHL drew 20,854,169 fans in 2005-06 when the sport returned from a one-year layoff. That was 497,970 more than in 2003-04, the season before the lockout. The league saw an attendance uptick each of the next three seasons, and would tally a record 21,468,121 fans in 2011-12.

Teams like the Flyers, St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators, among many more, emailed statements to ticket holders and all fans thanking them for their patience. Blues owner Tom Stillman told fans, “We know we cannot succeed without you, and we hope you will continue to support us at this critical time.”

Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom knows the players and league are going to have their work cut out for them when they do return as they try to repair the relationship with the fans once again.

“I know they’re mad,” Backstrom told The AP by phone. “It’s something that shouldn’t have happened. In 20 years we’ve lost probably two seasons if you count all the games. They should be mad. It’s not enough for us to say we’re sorry. There’s a lot of things we have to do to make it right. We have to go out there and play good hockey and worry about the product. We have to do our job to repair the damage. I hope at some point the fans can forgive us and be there for us.”

Dallas Stars president Jim Lites said the franchise would do all it could to win back the community.

“We are going to be price sensitive,” he said. “We are going to try everything we can to get people back. Be good to our existing fans and be great to our existing season-ticket holders, do everything we can to say yes to their requests.”

Think slashed ticket prices, giveaways, autograph signings, and all kinds of fan-friendly incentives to return to the rink.

By late Sunday night, fans had quickly turned Twitter into a fantasy transactions chart, scheming and dreaming of the players that should be offered contract buyouts allowed in the new labor deal by their favorite teams after this season. (Sorry, Ilya Bryzgalov).

The NHL’s impending return is welcome news for area businesses and arena workers, as well.

Bill Teague, owner of The Fan Sports Lounge near the American Airlines Center in Dallas, estimated he had lost at least $200,000 in revenue that he won’t get back with the delayed start of the hockey season.

“We won’t get back the lost games, but we’re very excited that they’re going to resume playing,” he said. “It’s very hard for us to survive without the NHL. And obviously we were getting pretty nervous that they might cancel the entire season. We’re all kind of up here celebrating today and getting ready to staff up for the start of play in about 10 days.”

But, finally, fans can stop thinking about mediators and talking heads dressed in suits. Rather, it’s time to get ready for Sid the Kid. It’s time for the Los Angeles Kings to go defend the Stanley Cup. It’s time to watch your team play, oh, about four times per week.

Sure, the Winter Classic was wiped out. The All-Star game went bust.

But at 48 games, it’s still hockey at the highest level.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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