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Friday, January 11, 2013
NHL fans want more than an apology

By Lynn Hoppes

Hockey Workout
Fans look on as NHL players participate in a workout in Scottsdale, Ariz., in December. Will those fans return to watch regular-season games now that the NHL lockout is over?
Apologies are flowing.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman offered this: "I read the letters, I followed the tweets, I read the blogs. We have a lot of work to do."

Buffalo Sabres president Ted Black said, "We're going to do whatever we can to get back on track." The Pittsburgh Penguins said, "There is nothing we can say to explain or excuse what has happened over the past four months." And the St. Louis Blues said, "We share in your disappointment and frustration about the lockout."

The NHL's work stoppage, which lasted 113 days, ended over the weekend after the league had cancelled all regular-season games through Jan. 14. The hope is to return to the ice next week, after the contracts are signed.

Bettman said there would be initiatives and campaigns to win back the fans, but said they would be announced at the "appropriate time."

Fans are in a wait-and-see mode.

"They can apologize all they want, but what specific actions are they going to do to get the fans back?" said Jim Boone, executive director of the National Hockey League Fans' Association. "I don't want a situation where they just paint 'Thanks Fans' on the ice like last time. Actions speak way louder than words."

Hockey fans
Carolina fans Jake Miles, 9, left, and his brother Zac Miles, 12, center, get their All-Star sweaters signed by Jordan Staal on Monday.
The NHLFA, with more than 30,000 members, was established in 1998 to give fans a voice. Boone has had some conversations with Bettman and knows that people will try to retaliate in some way for the third work stoppage in Bettman's tenure. But, in his heart, Boone knows the die-hards will be back.

"I'm really upset. I will take my own punitive actions as we go," said Boone, who is a fan of the Ottawa Senators. "I'm having a hard time forgiving in the short term, I guess, until I completely forget about it. It's going to take some time for the wounds to heal."

Attendance has gone up in each of the seasons since the last lockout in 2004-05, with last season being a record at more than 21 million fans.

The tentative agreement is a 10-year deal with a mutual opt-out clause after eight years and includes contract term limits at seven years. Sources said the 2013-14 salary cap, a very divisive issue, will be $64.3 million.

Boone said, from a fan's perspective, nothing will change with the league because it remains at 30 teams. He knows that there could be problems in years to come -- still.

Bettman disagreed, saying, "It's nothing more than speculation and it's nothing more than unfounded speculation."

But the facts remain, Boone said, that the league is broken into thirds. The top drawing teams are Chicago, Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit and Toronto, while the bottom teams in attendance are Phoenix, New York Islanders, Dallas, Columbus and Anaheim.

"I think the top third of teams, the strongest franchises, will definitely have their fan base return," Boone said. "The bottom third is where you will see the significant drop. I would not be surprised to see a 10 percent drop there."

Boone said he wishes the league would drop to 24 teams as a survival of the fittest. "I think the weaker teams should naturally fall by the wayside," he said. "That would make every other team stronger in the long run."

NHL fan Steve Chase, who started the "Just Drop It" campaign in December that encouraged fans to skip games once the league returned, said he planned to boycott the first 10 games of the season.

"I think at this point I don't want to hear from the league or the owners again," said Chase, whose Facebook page had more than 23,000 "Likes" by Friday morning. "I think the sport itself should bring the fans back."

Chase wishes the league and owners would have issued their apologies during the lockout and not now.

"The apologies now are pretty hollow. I don't think it's real," he said. "Don't placate us. Don't condescend [to] us. It's like getting slapped in the face three times and hearing, 'I'm sorry,' each time. Why do we keep coming back?"

That's what actor Vincent Piazza, who played college hockey at Villanova and has been skating since the age of 4, said.

"I had played hockey my whole life. So when this third lockout happened in a short span, I thought that I'm not going to watch it anymore," Piazza said. "Then the next day came, and I thought, 'I can't wait to go to a game!' I was ecstatic the lockout was over."