ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — For one night, the soundtrack of the NHL lockout included goal horns, cheers and the unmistakable sound of hockey. More than two dozen players stepped onto the ice for the Operation Hat Trick charity game, as collective bargaining negotiations were pushed aside for a few hours.
But while the owners and NHL Players' Association practiced the silent treatment, fans provided the background noise at Boardwalk Hall with chants of "We want hockey" and "Fire Bettman."
"It was a chance for fans to voice their opinion," ex-Washington Capitals and current New York Rangers forward Jeff Halpern said. "It's as simple as it gets, just 'We want hockey.'"
Charity games, the minor leagues and college hockey will have suffice as the lockout has dragged on for more than 70 days. So far, 422 regular-season games have been canceled, and the echo of fans' frustration is getting louder.
Players could sense that in the sold-out crowd of 10,792 who came to a charity game to benefit the victims of Superstorm Sandy. They heard the message loud and clear.
"You see how badly the fans miss and want hockey," Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. "Although the main focus tonight was for a greater cause than the CBA at this time, at the same time they showed their passion and how much they're still willing to support us. And we can't thank them enough for that."
The charity effort raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, made possible by sponsors and fervent fans who filled the arena. It shouldn't have been surprising that with fans of the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils intermingled, Sidney Crosby and Commissioner Gary Bettman would become the subject of chants.
"That's Philly/New York isn't it? That's passion. That's what they are," Flyers tough guy Jody Shelley said. "They're passionate, and they don't hold back. It was fun to hear that, those chants."
Passion isn't something to be debated among hard core hockey fans. It's why Bettman implied that the league will recover from this lockout because, "We have the world's greatest fans."
Those "world's greatest fans" suffered through a lockout that eliminated the 2004-05 season.
"I think it's a dangerous thing when you start taking advantage of people that are as passionate as they are about the game of hockey," Halpern said. "Hockey fans love the game, and when you start taking advantage of that fact and take the guess that they'll always come back or have that feeling, you're taking advantage of something that doesn't deserve to be done like that."
A night of hockey in a time of dark rinks can engender a many different emotions. Apathy may be setting in for some, but the glimpse of the sport after so long reminds fans why they love it so much.
And it reminds players of what they're missing out on.
"It's frustrating why there hasn't been a deal done at this point. Especially after what happened eight years ago. How the system's already in place and how close the numbers are, it should be done. It should be done tomorrow," Halpern said. "Both sides should be embarrassed. We've continually tried to make a deal. Really, you see what happened [Saturday night], the league should be embarrassed, the players [also]. The fact that we haven't gotten a deal done, it's embarrassing."
Caps defenseman John Carlson, who grew up in New Jersey, was appreciative and tried to find the bright side of the lockout: that players were able to raise money for a good cause. He called it perhaps a "blessing in disguise."
But it's not the same as the NHL.
"The fans, I think you're taking away something that they enjoy; they entertain themselves. They're the ones paying the bills. They're the ones spending their money. And they can't even do that," Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur said. "I'm sure it gets pretty annoying for them when the league starts, 'Well, seven years ago we do that and it's going really well,' and just by greed they want to do it again. It makes it hard on the fans more than anything."
Fans chanting "We want hockey" made it hard on Flyers left wing Scott Hartnell, too.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't say I got choked up a little bit when you get 11,000 people cheering, 'We want hockey back,'" Hartnell said. "We want to be playing, and it's just unfortunate that we're not right now."
Halpern sympathizes with fans because they're "the ones that get cheated the most because they don't have a voice in any of this."
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