Like many of you, I was hoping that I would wake today to find good news splashed across the headlines, news proclaiming that the NHL and NHLPA have finally decided to end their useless bickering and get back into the business of making the kind of money that most of us can only dream about. Alas, those headlines did not greet me when I rose from my slumber this chilly, January morn.
That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom, the fact that the two sides are going to meet again this morning is a positive. Also, the fact that the NHLPA decided to let the midnight deadline pass on filing their disclaimer of interest shows that the players continue to believe that both sides are bargaining in good faith, something that neither side would have claimed just a few weeks ago.
With all this being said, I am of the firm belief that the NHL will return to action in mid-January and when the players do hit the ice, they will be greeted by sell-out crowds, standing ovations and arenas full of fans sporting the jersey of their favorite player.
Many will poo-poo that train of thought, but they would be mistaken. The naysayers will claim that the casual fan will never return to the game and consequently, the game will suffer irreparable damage.
To them, I say, show me a casual hockey fan.
The casual hockey fan is a myth; they don’t exist in the real world, at least not during the regular season. Unlike football, where people will watch a game or attend a game for the festivities that surround them, the parties, the tailgates, you don’t have that during regular season hockey. Hockey is and will always be a niche sport.
When people refer to the big three sports, they are talking baseball, football and basketball. Sometimes a sportswriter will throw a big four in there, if they’re feeling generous and include the NHL, but that fact is hockey exists on the periphery of the sports fans' mind and only really makes an impact on the casual sports fan when the Stanley Cup Finals roll around.
Gary Bettman knows this and that’s why he can sit and get the best possible deal for the NHL owners during this lockout—the fans are coming back.
Sure you’ll have some teams that will struggle, but you know as well as I that they would have struggled even without the lockout. Do you honestly think the Flyers, Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Rangers, Canadiens, Penguins, Bruins and Oilers are worried about their fans coming back?
According to ESPN.com, 17 teams had home attendance of 99.9 percent or greater during the 2011-12 season. With the Flyers topping the list at an astounding 107.4 percent capacity per game. The majority of those teams will still sell out in 2013, because hockey fans are hardcore hockey fans.
Some will say the fact that casual fans won’t return to the game will hurt the NHL, but much like Godzilla, the casual fan is a myth, something that won’t bring any NHL city to its knees.