The NHL could get back a lot of the momentum and popularity that is being ruined by the lockout if the league and the NHLPA reach a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) by the end of the year, and start the season in early January.
At this point in the lockout, a lot of fans just want their NHL action back and don't care about who is to blame for the current state of labor talks or who wins the issues currently being negotiated.
The large majority of hockey fans probably will be quick to forgive the two sides when the new agreement is reached and the league opens its doors for what could be a thrilling shortened season.
Watching AHL and NCAA games is only going to satisfy die-hard NHL fans for so long. These people need NHL games to come back soon, and that's why they will support the league regardless of how frustrated they are right now.
Any popularity or momentum lost because of the work stoppage could be won back because of the intensity and excitement that a shortened schedule can produce.
Almost anything can happen in a shortened season. The last time the NHL played with that kind of schedule, there were quite a few upsets in the first round of the playoffs (including the New York Rangers defeating the Quebec Nordiques as an eighth seed) and the New Jersey Devils became the lowest seed to ever win the Stanley Cup (until last year's Los Angeles Kings).
Canadian fans will certainly support the NHL when the lockout ends, just as they did seven years ago at the start of the 2005-06 season, and there are plenty of United States markets that also have lots of sports fans who would be excited to have another team to cheer for.
Let's look at a few American cities who would benefit from the NHL's return.
|City||NHL Team(s)||Current Sports Situation|
|Boston||Bruins||The New England Patriots could be headed to another Super Bowl but the Boston Celtics have not given basketball fans much to be excited about this season. The Bruins would dominate the Boston sports scene following the Patriots playoff run, and give a generation of hockey fans who are finally seeing winning hockey from the Bruins on a consistent basis something to cheer for.|
|Detroit||Red Wings||Since the Detroit Pistons are likely headed for the NBA draft lottery again, and the Detroit Lions are unable to clinch a second straight NFL playoff berth, the Red Wings would be the main sports attraction in Detroit until baseball season in April.|
|Chicago||Blackhawks||The Bears' recent struggles could cost them an NFL playoff berth, and the Bulls are not exciting to watch without Derrick Rose in the lineup. You can bet that Chicago sports fans would love for the city's best team to return to the ice in the near future.|
|New York||Rangers, Islanders|
The Jets and Giants could both miss the NFL playoffs this season, while the Knicks look like legitimate NBA title contenders. New York sports fans badly want the NHL back because the Rangers are finally legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. The last time Madison Square Garden hosted two elite teams was 1994 when the Rangers won the Cup and the Knicks lost in the NBA Finals.
With many talented young players expected to make their NHL debuts for the Islanders this season, fans of this franchise would be re-energized in 2012-13.
|Phoenix||Coyotes||The possibility of Greg Jamison buying the Coyotes next month, along with the struggles of the Cardinals and Suns could lead to better attendance numbers at Jobing.com Arena for Coyotes games this season.|
|Los Angeles||Ducks, Kings||The lack of an NFL team and USC's poor college football season has helped make pro basketball the main sports attraction in Los Angeles. However, there are a lot of hockey fans, and sports fan in general who would love to support the defending champion Kings, as well as the Ducks if the NHL comes back.|
|Philadelphia||Flyers||The Eagles' disastrous season has Philadelphia sports fans in need of a winning team like the Flyers to cheer for. The 76ers are doing well, but aren't one of the top-tier teams in the Eastern Conference.|
I could have listed many more places, but it's easy to understand that there are so many NHL cities with fans who would welcome hockey back into their sports lives if the lockout ends.
The NHL cannot afford to lose a season when nearly all of the important United States markets (including many of the Southern cities with franchises) have playoff caliber teams.
Having good teams in major American markets is great for the NHL, and this is one reason why the league grew at such an impressive rate since the previous lockout. Losing the entire year would destroy this progress.
The level of fan support that the NBA received following its lockout last season was incredible, and maybe a bit unexpected too. Basketball fans were angry that the owners and players took so long to finalize a new CBA, but they were ready to spend money to support their teams once play resumed.
The NHL should see a similar amount of support if they get a CBA done by the end of December and start the season as early in January as possible.
There were 20 teams with attendance percentages of over 85 percent during the NBA's shortened 2011-12 season, according to ESPN. There's no reason why the NHL should fail to have attendance numbers that are just as impressive.
A shortened schedule could create some of the most competitive and exciting hockey we have ever seen from regular season play.
Lots of regular season games would have the kind of atmosphere normally found in the playoffs, and that would help convince die-hard fans, and also the important casual fans to come back to the sport.
If the NHL can start the 2012-13 season by early to mid-January, they can start to rebuild the momentum they had in June and begin to increase the popularity of the league again. Most of the fans will return when the lockout ends, so the owners and players just need to give them games to come back to.
The lockout has been awful for everyone involved with the NHL, but it is possible to recover from the damage that the league has suffered during the work stoppage if a new CBA is reached soon.
Follow Nicholas Goss on Twitter: Follow @NicholasGoss35