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Commentary: NHL fans might not be so forgiving this time

Published January 7, 2013 12:52 pm

NHL • League will have very little time to re-sell a product that has been idle for months
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

San Jose • The last time hockey came back from a lockout, you will recall, the situation was quite different.

It happened after that entire lost season. A new contract was signed in July 2005, which meant that the NHL had almost three months to hype hockey's return and romance the fans. Also, the league implemented rules that eliminated clutching and grabbing, creating a faster and more exciting product. Meanwhile, players agreed to new media-friendly policies and fan-outreach efforts. It all worked. The Sharks' average attendance actually went up after the lockout year — by almost 1,000 fans per game.

Will the same thing happen this time? Probably not. There are a lot of reasons. One is, rather than three months, the NHL will have just two weeks or so to coax customers back into arenas.

Many season tickets already are sold, of course. So those people surely will show up. But getting disgruntled fans to buy single-game tickets ... and regaining a television audience ... and persuading the Bay Area to start caring again about the Sharks after it has been nine months since their last game and the 49ers and Warriors have been sapping away casual front-running fans' attention ... well, none of that will be easy-peezy.

Also, there must be some concerns about what the product might look like. There won't be any new clean-and-speed-up-the-game rules this time, and last season it seemed that referees already were allowing more interference that slowed the action. A number of players have been going full-bore on European teams. Others have been doing their best to stay in shape here in North America. But the post-lockout "training camps," as such, will last only a few days before the puck is dropped for real.

Under those conditions, how do you integrate new players and regain cohesion? Initially, the hockey could be sloppy and non-fluid and ugly. We could be in for a rash of injuries from players who try to ramp it up too quickly.

On the other hand, at least there will be major league hockey to watch, which is far better than staring at an empty rink — and better than seeing minor league hockey, with all due respect to the San Francisco Bulls and the Stockton Thunder.

If the NHL wants to create immediate buzz, it might even change its overtime/shootout method of deciding games that are tied at the end of regulation. Instead of five minutes of four-on-four overtime hockey followed by a shootout, perhaps we will see the five minutes of four-on-four followed by five minutes of wild three-on-three hockey before going to the shootout.

It is also quite possible that I am totally wrong and am completely underestimating the enthusiasm of fans. Maybe they will all come back anyway. After all, this lockout and subsequent settlement now most resembles the work stoppage of 1994-95. That one lasted 104 days and ended Jan. 11. The season was shortened to 48 games and began Jan. 20.

In San Jose, that '94-95 lockout had more impact than it did in most places. The All-Star game was supposed to be played in San Jose that season. Instead, it was canceled and then rescheduled for 1997. Also, the Sharks had won their first playoff series in the spring of 1994 with their big upset of Detroit. Huge local fervor carried over through the summer with great anticipation for the following season — only to have the plug pulled by the lockout. Fans in the Bay Area had every right to be angry.

But what happened? When the doors finally opened Jan. 20 for the Sharks' first home game, the announced attendance was a full-capacity 17,190. And the team sold out all 24 home dates of the abbreviated season.

The hockey audience in Northern California is more sophisticated and cynical than it was in 1994. It is hard to imagine that crowds will immediately flock back again. Yet I have always compared hockey fans to Deadheads, members of a dedicated tribe devoted to their favorite band. No matter what, they always show up for the next tour. It could be that way for followers of our beloved Los Tiburones, too.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.