NHL’s next step is winning back hardened fans

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Flyers owner Ed Snider had a simple message on the day the NHL lockout ended:

Welcome back.

Welcome back, NHL.

Welcome back, NHL fans.

Lost in the squabble between the league and players over the 113-day labor dispute was how the hardcore fans were losing interest with each messy board room update from an idle sport. Keeping the faith turned into planning boycotts. The Winter Classic gave way to the winter doldrums for even the most passionate fans in hockey-mad markets.

Why care so much about a sport that had stuck its fans inside a penalty box for more than four months?

“I’m hoping that our fans understand this was something that had to be done for the strength of the league, for the strength of the Players Association,” Snider told The Associated Press. “I hope they don’t hold it against us and just come out and see some great hockey.

“If I had to guess, I think we’re going to be in great shape.”

One of the questions that arises now, of course, and after any sort of stoppage for that matter, is will the fans come back? This is the third labor dispute in Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure, and though the fans returned in the past, the jury is out this time.

NHL fan Steve Chase started the grass roots “Just Drop It” campaign that encouraged fans to skip one NHL game for every game canceled after Dec. 21st. 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 by Sunday night. And Chase, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote on the site he would stay true to his commitment.

He planned to boycott in all forms at least the first 10 games of the season.

Chase said there was growing sentiment among his friends to skip the entire season. He said the league and players didn’t think enough about the part-time employees and local businesses who needed the sport to help survive the winter months.

“Our stance has always been, we don’t want to punish them, we just want hockey back,” Chase said. “It’s just a one-for-one thing. We just want to make it fair. We hoped it was going to be over before it ever got to this.”

Amid the realization they’ll have to repair the damaged relationship with the die-hards, Snider expected teams to show their gratitude for their support on opening night _ and beyond.

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