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Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Casual fan not missing NHL

By Sarah Spain

Chicago Bears fans greeted the visiting Lions with an all-too-familiar chant Monday night at Soldier Field: "Dee-troit sucks! Dee-troit sucks!" It's a cry that usually resides in the United Center, ringing through the rafters at Chicago Blackhawks games -- even on nights the Red Wings aren't in town.

It's immature and not particularly clever, but it's tradition. And hearing it catch on in Soldier Field, making its way through the masses like a vocal wave, well, it made me miss hockey more than you can imagine.

And the knot in my gut grew even more Tuesday when Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane announced via Twitter that he'd be taking his talents to Switzerland. After weeks of holding out hope for a resolution to the NHL lockout, Kane finally caved and signed with Swiss team EHC Biel.

He's the fifth Blackhawk to ink a deal with an overseas team -- and by far the biggest name to do so -- but dozens of players from other teams have also jumped ship as hope for an 82-game schedule fades.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week that a full regular season can still be saved if the league and the players' union can come to an agreement by this Thursday, but if the deadline passes, the NHL is likely to announce the cancellation of another month of games so arenas can schedule other events.

At the United Center, those "other events" include things like Barbara Streisand in concert and Disney On Ice. Sorry Babs, but I'd rather see Jim Cornelison sing the national anthem to a roaring crowd. And no offense Mickey (aka my boss), but Disney on Ice just can't compare to Cold Steel on Ice.

I'm certainly not the only person in Chicago who's losing sleep (and patience) over the lockout, and yet the roar from frustrated fans is duller than you'd think. Unlike the NFL and NBA lockouts of last year, social media isn't buzzing with updates on every tiny detail of the NHL negotiations. I've even heard a few fans admit that they wouldn't mind a break from paying for season tickets.

Because of sites like Twitter and Facebook, hockey fans know more about the details of an agreement from each side this time around. But even informed fans can't seem to summon the proper lockout outrage.

The problem? We've all been here before. In fact, this is the league's fourth work stoppage in the past 20 years. The player strike at the end of the 1991-92 season was resolved without any lost games; the 1994-95 regular season was reduced to 48 games after the owners locked out the players; and another lockout cost the NHL the entire 2004-05 season.

Players (those who haven't yet jetted off to Europe, at least) are noticing some apathy on the part of fans.

"People don't care as much this time around -- that's what's scary," free agent Brendan Morrison told Canada's National Post early in the lockout. "Last time, people were in an uproar, right? This time around, I don't sense that as much."

Nothing to see here, folks -- just another lockout under commissioner Bettman. (The third work stoppage under his watch.)

Since the last lockout, the league has recorded seven straight seasons of increased revenue, including a record $3.3 billion last year. Another lost season would effectively raze that growth and progress. Die-hard hockey fans will continue to support their teams, no matter how long they have to wait to see them, but more and more casual fan will lose interest as its absence lengthens.

This Friday, just two days before leaving for Switzerland, Kane will join a handful of current and former Blackhawks from the team's 2010 Stanley Cup-winning squad for a player-organized charity game against other pros. The scrimmage, set to benefit Ronald McDonald House, will be the first chance for Chicago fans to see their Blackhawks since last season.

Let's hope it's not the only chance for fans to chant "Dee-troit Sucks!" in unison, the way it is supposed to be, by die-hard Blackhawks fans enjoying some hockey.