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NHL fans shake off frustration as big-league hockey returns from lockout

Fans gather to watch the Montreal Canadiens during their first day of training camp in Brossard, Que., on Sunday, January 13, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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Fans gather to watch the Montreal Canadiens during their first day of training camp in Brossard, Que., on Sunday, January 13, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL - Its legions of diehard fans are quick to describe their feelings during the nearly four-month-long lockout as a painful mixture of frustration, boredom and bitterness.

But as the National Hockey League prepares to drop its first puck of the season Saturday, the overwhelming sentiment for many fans is one of longing for its return.

And what about all those angry aficionados who threatened to punish the NHL for starving them of top-calibre hockey during the labour dispute?

Early fan reaction suggests all is forgiven for hordes of people in hockey's heartlands.

"To us, honestly, we sweep it under the rug—it's all good," said Canadiens buff Chris Bonnier, one of hundreds of people who watched a team training session earlier this week at the club's practice facility in suburban Montreal.

"We're just more enthusiastic right now, man, because it's been nine months. So, we're ready to go, ready to see some hockey."

A new poll suggests a strong majority of Canadian hockey fans will keep watching when the NHL returns—despite the league's third work stoppage in 20 years.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey found that 66 per cent of respondents said they would watch about the same amount of hockey as before, while 23 per cent indicated they would watch less.

The poll results suggest that the widespread rage expressed by fans during the labour dispute may not have been as significant as expected—not in Canada, at least.

"It's a business and sometimes in business there's disagreements and that," said Michael Larson, a Vancouver Canucks fan who took in an open Flames practice this week in Calgary with his eight-year-old son, Ethan.

"But we understand and we're excited that they're back."

While NHL loyalty seems strong in northern cities, some have expressed concern over potential damage for teams in non-traditional hockey markets.

NHL clubs have rushed to offer goodies to fans in an attempt to reverse any hard feelings inflicted by the lockout.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, offered 200 season tickets at just $200 each. The team said it would also throw in a $25 gift card at its official merchandise store.

The Columbus Blue Jackets plan to give away free stuff—including a T-shirt, a drink, popcorn and a hot dog—to each fan at its home opener.

Other teams have tried to make fans happy by opening up practices and scrimmages to the public and offering 50 per cent discounts on merchandise.

One frustrated hockey enthusiast in Los Angeles, however, doesn't think the outreach will be enough.

The creator of a popular campaign, which hopes to make the NHL think twice about shutting down the game in the future, believes the latest lockout has hurt hockey's chances of expanding in its fragile markets.

"The growth of the game is desperately in trouble," said Steve Chase, who initiated the "Just Drop It" campaign.

"You can't do this and grow the game—you just can't."

The Just Drop It movement calls on frustrated fans to pledge to stop buying NHL merchandise and to refrain from attending and watching matches on TV during the first 10 games of the season.

Nearly 23,000 have clicked "like" on the campaign's Facebook page to signify their intention to take the pledge, said Chase, a Montreal-born hockey fan who moved to L.A. years ago.

The movement hopes those disgruntled fans will send a message to the NHL by putting a minor dent in its bottom line.

Chase said the L.A. Kings' exciting run to the Stanley Cup title last year boosted the team's presence beyond its typically marginal status in a city where hockey coverage is anchored to the back page of the sports section.

But the former Kings season-ticket holder believes the lockout has tripped up that momentum. After a brief period of excitement, people in the California city are no longer talking about the reigning champs, he added.

"That's here and the Kings won the Cup," said Chase, who directs commercials.

"I can't imagine what's going on in Florida and Carolina, cities where it's a novelty act already."

NHL attendance bounced back in 2005-06 after the previous season was cancelled due to a lockout. Most clubs, in fact, actually saw their attendance increase that year.

In big hockey markets, the NHL appears poised for another post-lockout rebound this season.

At least 2,000 people attended a Philadelphia Flyers practice on Sunday and some 5,000 fans showed up for an open training session featuring the Winnipeg Jets.

On Thursday in Montreal, 200 people were lined up in -15 C temperatures for more than seven hours outside the Bell Centre for a chance to watch a free Habs scrimmage. The first fans in the queue say they arrived as early as 6 a.m.

By late afternoon, thousands of people had filed into the building to claim one of its 21,000 seats. Canadiens players surprised fans as they entered the Bell Centre by greeting them with handshakes and high-fives.

The two-period game ended up attracting a crowd of more than 17,000.

Bar and restaurant owners, meanwhile, are depending on this type of buzz around the NHL's return to bolster revenues that sagged during the lockout.

Paulo Branco, the owner of a popular Montreal bar for watching hockey, says business was down about 30 per cent during the labour dispute, compared to the same period last year.

"It's a big chunk of change for people who operate bars that count on hockey to pay the bills," said Branco, whose Chez Serge establishment sold out for Saturday's opening-night Habs game less than 24 hours after the official announcement the NHL was coming back.

"People are not that upset. Au contraire, I find people are more excited than ever."

Among the hundreds of fans who watched the Canadiens practice on Wednesday in Brossard, a few admitted to briefly considering some form of retaliation against the NHL for the lockout.

"I'm not going to boycott, but it did enter my mind at one point in time because I was really disappointed in the contract talks and things like that," said Richard Mullins.

"But I'm back and I'm happy they're back and I'll continue to be a 100 per cent fan."

All seven Canadian teams will take the ice this weekend. On Saturday, the Canadiens host the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Jets host the Ottawa Senators and the Anaheim Ducks visit the Canucks.

The Canucks play again Sunday, when the Edmonton Oilers visit. Earlier Sunday, the Flames will host the San Jose Sharks.

—with a file from Donna Spencer in Calgary

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