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Sunday, January 6, 2013
Fans always forgive once games start

By Darren Rovell
ESPN

As the days wore on, the disdain for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his negotiating counterpart Donald Fehr continued to rise. How could Bettman be doing this again? Did Fehr realize this wasn't baseball he was dealing with?

But as the parameters of a new labor deal were agreed to early Sunday morning, we come back to the same place we always have with hockey: The only thing that is lost is this season's games.

Talk for the next couple of weeks will be filled with debate over how much collateral damage has been done. Let's get this out of the way quickly: not much.

How do I know? Because we've seen very little effect from work stoppages in the recent past.

While fans spend time deciding who they hate more during the tie-up between the owners and players, the truth is games quickly make fans forget.

Sure, one preseason game was lost when the NFL came back, but as soon as it did, fans' brains were immediately filled with thoughts of hope for their real teams and decisions to make for their fantasy teams.

The NBA, which played a shortened 66-game season in 2011-12 due to its lockout, has a more widespread, casual fan base than the NHL does. Those fans could have left more easily, yet they didn't.

In fact, they came back stronger than ever before.

The NHL has been through this many times, including, of course, the 2004-05 season, when it became the first league to miss an entire season due to a work stoppage. And fans came back in droves.

So what would be different this time?

The economy you say? I say you're wrong.

Fans are fans, and they find ways to make things work. If they go to fewer games, they're going to be watching more games on TV.

Sure, there will be some markets that will suffer -- how the Phoenix Coyotes will ever survive this lockout, I can't tell you. But as I go down the list of teams (including the Islanders, who will be moving to Brooklyn), I can't think of many that will automatically have empty arenas on game day.

In a Twitter poll I took Sunday morning, which had 430 votes at last check, 73 percent of people who say they were NHL fans would watch the same percentage of games as they had in previous seasons.

Did the NHL lockout really affect a quarter of its audience? Of course it didn't. Those fans will be back once they see the ice and the game that they've found so hard to resist.

You see, what enables the NHL to sustain longer work stoppages is the fact that both sides know how rabid its fans are. While some fans might one day replace their love for the NFL with a love for college football, and some fans might leave the NBA for college basketball, we've been shown throughout time that there is no replacement for the NHL.

Many make fun of the niche fan base the league has, but that's also what makes it so strong, so resilient.

As Paul Agrait (@Agrait16), a fan from New Brunswick, N.J., put it so well in voting "YES" to my poll that he'd be back: "True fans love the game and nothing can really change that."