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Wednesday, January 9, 2013
True hockey fans will always come back

By Sarah Spain

This past July I got all dolled up, put on a fancy dress and headed to a country club in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago to see my good friends Andy and Kelly get hitched. The ceremony was pretty typical -- a beaming bride, a gleeful groom, teary-eyed, pastel-clad bridesmaids and bros in suits wondering when they'd be released from pictures for cocktail hour.

The reception? Well, that wasn't so typical.

For starters, the cake-toppers were a guy with a hockey stick in his hand and a helmet tucked under his arm and a woman with a megaphone and a foam finger that read No. 1 fan. A fully operational hockey goal light sat atop the bridal table and splashed beams of flashing red across the wedding party and the wall behind them. Forget the traditional clinking of champagne glasses -- when the goal horn went off, Andy and Kelly had to kiss.

A group of Andy's hockey teammates wore their team jerseys while gettin' down on the dance floor and grabbed their hockey sticks for pictures with the bride and groom. When it came time to fling the garter belt (complete with Blackhawks logo) into the waiting arms of all the single men, Andy tossed it using his stick.

Midway through dinner the father of the groom gave a touching, tearful speech about how Andy and Kelly met, she was a spectator at one of his hockey games.

"Andy's love for the game of hockey has led him to the love of his life," he said.

Andy and Kelly never would have met were it not for the game of hockey, and I never would have become friends with them if not for the Blackhawks. Andy and I first "met" on a Blackhawks message board shortly after I moved back to Chicago in 2008. I was covering the team and started going to the message boards to get a feel for what die-hard fans were talking about.

It was your standard sports message board, chock full of meatheads, threadjackers, trolls and cynics. Andy stood out as one of the few commenters who really just wanted to talk about the team and the game. I began to seek him out and welcomed his insight.

A few months after I joined the site, a few of us -- Andy included -- decided to get together on game night for a "Blackhawks Road Watch" party at a local bar. My boyfriend and I hit it off with Andy and Kelly immediately and we've been friends ever since.

That's the thing about hockey -- and sports, in general -- it's about being part of something bigger than us. It's about bonding over a shared interest, creating a larger whole by standing united in our team's colors. It's about the relationships formed and the friendships forever linked to the games that brought you together.

When the NHL lockout mercifully came to an end on Sunday, 113 days after it began, Andy and I were some of the first to take to Twitter and Facebook to send out elated posts about the return of Blackhawks hockey.

The "Hockey is back!" declarations came fast and furious from my friends -- many of whom I met via the message board or at a Blackhawks game. Most were so excited for hockey to start back up, they were quick to forgive and forget. Still others said they would stick to their guns and boycott the league as payback for the months lost to greed and stubbornness.

It's easy to understand both sides.

On the one hand, why rush to get back to loving something that very obviously doesn't love us back? Both the league and the players' union lied to the public repeatedly throughout negotiations and tried to turn the fans against one another. During the four-month standoff only a small number of teams even bothered to reach out to fans to apologize for yet another work stoppage -- the league's third in the last 20 years.

Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan understands that for many, the NHL product has lost a little luster.

"You're idealistic as a player when you first come into the league," Doan told a local sports radio show. "As the business of the game works into the equation, you sometimes feel it gets tarnished. ... Now our goal is to prove that is hasn't [been tarnished] and bring back that pride and bring back that honor that goes with being a player."

When the shortened 48- or 50-game schedule begins Jan. 19, the tickets will cost the same, but the quality of the product on the ice will likely be muddied. Players will be out of shape, out of sync and prone to injury.

Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press advocates fans turning their backs on the action for the first few minutes of their team's opening night, just to give the owners and players a taste of their own medicine. NHL fan Steve Chase started Facebook and Twitter pages asking fans to join his "Just Drop It" campaign and skip one game for every game cancelled after Dec. 21.

In the case of such a boycott, the NHL isn't likely to be feeling the pain; it's the fans that live and die by their teams that will hurt the most.

"I'm sure there will be another fan to replace that person [who boycotts]," said Andy. "This game isn't going away anytime soon. I'd rather watch the game I love than be bitter and attempt to make [some] sort of statement by boycotting the league. That statement would ultimately fall on deaf ears anyway, so what's the point?"

The lockout hurt because it kept fans from the game they love. Now that it's over, it's tough for die-hards to imagine going without it even longer by choice. It's that loyalty that makes it tough to expect fans to do anything other than welcome back the NHL with open arms, no matter how poorly they've been treated.

"Ideally I wouldn't mind some sort of perk or partial refund with interest as a loyal season ticket holder," admitted Andy. "I'm certainly not expecting it, though. Does that leave me bitter? Maybe a little. But I'm excited to walk back through those doors again and cheer this team on to another Cup run. I love the smell of the ice -- hockey players know what I'm talking about."

The NHL is the league that can least afford to lose fans, and yet they act as if supporters come in an unlimited supply. That's because the loyal, passionate fans of the sport will always show up. Their numbers are smaller than, say, the NFL or NBA, but they are a loud and proud bunch. Hockey fans will always come back.

The entire 2004-05 NHL season was lost to a lockout and the next year the league drew 20,854,169 fans -- nearly 500,000 more than it drew the year before. Attendance has gone up in each of the seasons since, with 2011-12 drawing a record 21,648,121 fans. Hockey fans will always come back.

Andy and I, like so many others, will be there opening night. And because the NHL can count on that loyalty and love, we'll probably be caught up in the same mess all over again when the new CBA expires in 2020.

It's a one-sided relationship, but it's one we can't quit. For Andy, hockey isn't just about big hits, sick handles, nifty saves or even that sweet, sweet smell of the ice.

"I never would have met Kelly if I didn't play hockey," he said. "The game has been good to me."

So he'll always be good to the game.