- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2013

Living in Toronto, Joel Ward couldn’t get away from fans expressing their frustration over the NHL lockout.

“Everyone has their two cents,” the Washington Capitals forward said. “I definitely feel their pain for sure. People are fed up with the whole situation.”

With the lockout over and training camps set to begin Sunday, the league and its players begin the task of trying to bring fans back. For the Capitals and many teams, fans will return, but the harm done to the NHL’s reputation is hard to ignore.

“I’m honestly really embarrassed by the lockout, like personally embarrassed. I feel terrible about it,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “I feel like we just punched our sport in the face.”

Bruised and battered, the sport will return in earnest with a 48-game season beginning Jan. 19. But the work begins now and will continue beyond those 1,440 regular-season games to repair the relationship with fans.

“You tell them sorry and hopefully they come back,” Caps forward Jason Chimera said. “I can understand if people don’t buy our tickets now, for sure, because it leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths.”

There’s no easy fix. There was speculation the NHL would offer Center Ice, its cable and satellite TV package, for free or at a reduced price, but that has yet to be confirmed. Even offering the online version, GameCenter Live, would be some gesture.

Don’t expect any announcements about NHL-wide promotions until after the players ratify the new collective bargaining agreement.

“That’s in the process of being worked on and will be announced at the appropriate time,” commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday.

It’s also up to individual teams to bring fans back.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are offering 200 season tickets for $200, which would be $8.33 a game. The Pittsburgh Penguins are offering free select concessions at their first four home games. The Nashville Predators are offering a free ticket to their second home game for anyone who buys one for opening night.

A Caps spokesman said: “During the next several days and once the NHL schedule is announced, we will release our plans and more information for the upcoming season.”

Owner Ted Leonsis offered an apology to fans on his blog Thursday.

“We know we have fences to mend, and we must work hard to rebuild trust and continue to grow our great hockey community,” Leonsis wrote. “I promise personally to lead this effort and to show contrition; this entire experience has been extremely humbling.”

The Penguins and San Jose Sharks are giving away prizes, and the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres are putting some team merchandise on sale at 50 percent off for a limited time.

That’s one approach, but what can players say to disgruntled fans?

“I don’t think there’s anything we can really say. I think there’s a lot of people that are unsure or upset about this,” New York Rangers forward Jeff Halpern said. “I think the players have to go out there and put on a great product.”

It’s up to the players, Halpern said, to help bring fans back.

“It’s kind of tough. I don’t really know what exactly would be good enough,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Some fans are going to be more hard-headed than others. That’s understandable. They deserve to be upset about all that. But it’s hard. As players all we can really do is remind why they enjoy hockey as much as they do.”

Winning is a start. Teams that start fast and look like playoff and Stanley Cup contenders should have an easier time drawing fans.

And in big-time hockey markets, most will flock back to arenas. It should happen in Washington, though it can’t be without effort.

“We have to give back, we have to find some way to re-engage. Some of them will, they’re die-hards, they’ll absolutely come back. But we have to re-engage everybody again,” Laich said. “Our fan base now, they’re actually in love with the sport. And it wasn’t just a ‘jump on a bandwagon because the Caps have won for a couple years and had a good team’ sort of thing. They’re now in love with the sport.”

General manager George McPhee was all smiles Tuesday discussing the end of the lockout and said he hoped fans are as happy as executives, coaches and players are.

“You know, we’re all hockey fans. I’ve missed hockey. You’ve missed hockey. They’ve missed it,” McPhee said. “We’re looking forward to seeing our team. We’re looking forward to seeing our fans, and they’re looking forward to seeing us.”

But forward Matt Hendricks said players also need to be respectful of fans’ feelings, which include some bitterness even among the die-hards. Players interacting with fans even more than usual is one way to bridge whatever gap the lockout created.

“You’ve just got to reach out to people and thank them and thanks for suffering along with us,” Chimera said. “And hopefully you come back and support us again.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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