January 11, 2013

Canada and the return of pro hockey

“Who says there’s no hockey this year?”

That was the tagline for the TV ad from a large Canadian bank during the recent World Junior Hockey championship in Ufa, Russia. The spot depicted cute and determined youngsters getting suited up to head out onto the ice.

(And yes, now that we mention it, that was same tourney where eventual gold-medal winners Team U.S.A. spanked Canada 5-1 in the semi-final game. So congrats, already.)

The point of the ad campaign, of course, was that despite the absence of National Hockey League play due to the lockout, there was and is still lots of hockey being played in Canada (and the United States and the rest of the amateur and semi-pro hockey-playing world.)

That’s certainly the case in my little fortnightly hockey gang where the NHL situation has barely sparked a conversation in the change room, the message apparently being a pox on both their houses — the players and owners, that is.

The outdoor rink in my neighborhood, blessed with decent ice a week before Christmas, has been busier than ever with games of pickup stopping only when they shut the lights.

But now the lockout is over, and the millionaires will be returning to the ice, and the owners will be eager to recoup the losses wrought by the forfeit of some 1,000 revenue-generating games.

The question is how fans will respond to the third labor disruption in the NHL in 18 years. In some markets in the United States, it may be a challenge to get people to realize pro hockey was actually gone more than three months. In others, with a deep and passionate hockey history — Detroit, New York, Boston — team loyalty probably transcends the vagaries of periodic player-owner showdowns.

In Canada, there are rumblings of fan protests, from boycotting opening games to shunning NHL merchandise, but the sense is the rift will be temporary as the hockey flock return to the fold.

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