Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane high-fives fans as he walks a red carpet introduction before their home opener NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Daily Herald, George LeClaire) MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OUT; TV OUT
The boycotts were threatened. The irate tweets were posted.
NHL fans were fed up with labour strife updates and they weren't coming back to the sport they loved once the lockout was lifted.
Except that they did. In most homes and arenas, they came in record numbers, unable to stay away for that first faceoff.
The fans partied in Nashville, Tenn., where $1 hot dogs helped woo Predators fans back to Bridgestone Arena.
In Ohio, the Columbus Blue Jackets came on the ice for warmups wearing jerseys numbered 1 with "Thank You Fans" printed where the player's name is. The jerseys were then given to fans.
In Philadelphia, a city that hasn't sniffed a Stanley Cup parade since 1975, a record 19,994 fans showed up for the season opener against Pittsburgh. That came on the heels of more than 2,000 fans at their practice facility for the first day of training camp and another 15,000 showed up for a free, open practice at the Wells Fargo Center.
Across the state in Pittsburgh, Consol Energy Center was packed during a free intrasquad exhibition last week, with a couple thousand fans turned away at the door. Just to make sure the fans will stay satiated—as if watching Sidney Crosby isn't enough—the Penguins are giving those in attendance during the first four home games vouchers for free food and dropping prices on team merchandise by 50 per cent.
Yes, there's a good deal to be found in the NHL, and it's not just the collective bargaining agreement. It's slashed prices and freebies all offered to hockey-starved fans as a way of saying thanks for sticking by the sport over the 113-day lockout.
Crosby, the league's most famous player, wasn't surprised at how fans stuffed arenas around the NHL.
"I think it's great to see that we're still getting the turnout that we're getting," he said.
Can't get a ticket? No worries. There's always the comfort of watching on the big screen TV. While the NHL will never attract the oversized ratings of the NFL or other marquee sports, the numbers from the first few days of action show fans will plop down on the sofa and watch on high definition just as much as from high in the upper deck.
NBC's broadcast Saturday earned the league's most-watched game for a non-Winter Classic in 14 years. It was regional coverage of the Chicago Blackhawks defeating the Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings, 5-2, and Pittsburgh's 3-1 victory over Philadelphia. All told, 2.77 million viewers tuned in.
It was the most-watched regular-season coverage on NBC since the network again began broadcasting the NHL in 2006, and the highest since Fox drew 3.09 million viewers for a three-game regional slate in April 1999.
NBC's coverage peaked at 3.82 million viewers in the final minutes of the broadcast when most viewers were watching the Penguins lead the Flyers, 2-1.
Eight markets set local ratings records or milestones for regular-season coverage—not counting Winter Classics—that aired either on NBC or NBC Sports Network from Saturday to Tuesday.
"It's good to talk about something else besides the lockout and actually talk about the game," Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. "It's obviously a pretty good feeling out there having the fans. They are unbelievable."
Maybe it helped the league said it was sorry: The NHL bought full-page ads in about 40 newspapers across the United State and Canada thanking fans for their patience and apologizing for the lost games. The ad said the league was "committed to earning back your trust and support" with "hard work and unwavering dedication."
The abbreviated 48-game season where games matter more, at least in perception, than the usual October, November snoozers has helped fuel interest. So has opening over a slow portion of the sports calendar. Outside of the scandals that have piled up at a daily clip, there's not much to grab the average viewer outside of the Super Bowl. March Madness and baseball could cut into the viewing audience, but the Stanley Cup chase will be full blast by then.
Fans are forgiving but, of course, some are still angry at the league for wiping out a slate of games. Others have continued to follow through on their preseason pledges of ignoring the league. NHL fan Steve Chase started the grass roots "Just Drop It" campaign that encouraged fans to skip one NHL game for every game cancelled after Dec. 21. Ten games total. He asked fans to pledge they would not spend a penny or a minute of their time on tickets, TV, merchandise, all things NHL.
More than 21,000 fans had clicked the "like" button on the group's Facebook page as of Wednesday.
The page features a sign that says, "10 Games! Be Strong!" Chase said members of the group have told him they are honouring their vow and not doing much more than checking scores on their mobile devices or in newspapers.
"We totally expected there would be a mass exodus because hockey fans are hockey fans," he said. "That's been pretty impressive to see."
With some teams having played three games already since Saturday, those 10 games will whizz by like a slap shot.
Chase said he hasn't bought a ticket for a game this season and acknowledges, "I probably won't go back this year."
But when he turns on the TV for Game 11, he'll see plenty of fans willing to go in his place.
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