Whenever the NHL lockout comes to an end, both sides will pat themselves on the back for a job well done and drift off to sleep with the belief that things are going to get back to normal as the game makes its triumphant return to the ice.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Look, the diehard fans are going to come back because it's what they do. Hockey is in their blood.
These folks love the sport, and while they remain annoyed and upset by the fact that millionaires and billionaires can't agree on how to divide a multi-billion-dollar pie, those fans will return to the arena when the NHL skates once again.
It's the casual fans that the NHL should be worried about, because that is a demographic that no longer exists in the world of the National Hockey League.
If you didn't know any better, you'd think that Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer was one of those fans based on one of his latest tweets:
Carchidi (@BroadStBull) December 13, 2012
That's the problem. Casual fans couldn't care less about the NHL's labor strife.
Those folks aren't heavily invested in the game; they have no long-standing allegiances developed over lifetimes and hundreds, if not thousands, of hours spent glued to a television set watching the action.
If the NHL comes back and they happen to catch news that there's a game in their neck of the woods, sure, they might check it out.
But the collateral that the NHL had built up with those folks has disappeared.
The bigger issue is that there is an entire generation of kids and young adults that don't understand what's going on—nor should they (they are kids after all)—and they don't care, either.
All they know is that there is no hockey on television or games to attend, so what do they do?
Other sports—whether it be the NBA, college sports and pro wrestling, among others—become their source for entertainment.
As with the casual fan, the NHL has become an afterthought for this demographic as well.
That these things are true is further evidence that leadership on both sides of the aisle has failed miserably in effectively growing and marketing the game, truly capturing what makes it the greatest spectator sport on the planet. But that's another discussion for another day.
When the NHL does return to the ice, its teams will be playing in front of half-empty arenas and with no buzz. Neither side can slap a Band-Aid on things and think that it will heal with time.
It's going to take real leadership and ingenuity over a number of years to bring the NHL back to the heights that it had previously reached.
Whether those leaders are in place is perhaps the biggest question of them all.
Considering where we find ourselves today, it's pretty clear what the answer to that one is.
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