NEW YORK—As winter tightens its grip on the nation, hockey fans from coast to coast are breaking out their team sweaters for the first time in what seems like ages, eagerly anticipating attending their first professional hockey game since the NHL's lockout began quite some time ago.
"Oh, hockey's back? Well, I'm glad they finally got that whole thing resolved," said North Carolina resident Max Sherwood, adding that once the ponds of Raleigh freeze over, he would definitely consider going to a game. "I remember I used to see it on TV now and then, but not for a while, come to think of it. It's nice they're going to have that again."
"I hope we can beat the Russians again, at any rate," Sherwood added.
To fans of the NHL, there is nothing that comes close to hockey, and no doubt its sudden disappearance from the world of competitive sports some time in the last few years came as a crushing disappointment to the hockey faithful. But with the new year upon us, those die-hard fans will soon be thrilled by the breathtaking exploits of luminaries such as Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Paul Coffey, Barry Melrose, the Quebec Nordiques, and Wayne "The Great" Gretzky. And, as always, the NHL hopes that newcomers to the sport might find it fills the void between the college bowl games and the NBA All-Star Game.
"I still can't believe they skate the entire time," said Phoenix resident Brent Quigley. "I've never managed to actually see more than a couple games back when they used to show them, and I've never been to one, because it's a pretty long drive to Los Angeles. But it's colorful, what with the fights and all, right?"
Pittsburgh, a major hockey hotbed, is reportedly abuzz with hockey-mad fans, as the local Pittsburgh players are once again expected to make another run at the elusive championship.
"You do remember that we actually won one a while ago? I'm pretty sure we did," said outspoken superstar Jagr, who, before the lockout, many hockey insiders claimed was on pace to break an important league record or records. "And yes, I think we are doing okay so far. It's early," added Jagr, apparently referring to his team's preseason record, after being asked if his team had a chance to win the Stanley Trophy.
Though the league promises that rule changes made during the lockout will promote a faster, higher-scoring style of play that should attract Americans to the sport, the NHL may still have difficulty competing with other nationally televised athletic events that have traditionally earned a larger audience, such as professional football, college football, arena football, professional basketball, college basketball, women's professional basketball, NASCAR season highlight retrospectives, motocross, the And-1 Mix Tape Basketball Tour, NASCAR season previews, Monday Night RAW, professional bass fishing, the upcoming pay-per-view Oscar de la Hoya fight, ESPN Classic, the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its accompanying reality show, amateur bass fishing, highlights of Staten Island Yankees workouts, and college hockey.
"We certainly think Americans have forgiven us for the lockout by now, and will continue to attend our games," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who was also acting commissioner during the work stoppage that resulted in the cancellation of hockey's equivalent of the world series for the first time in 90 years.
"It was certainly a difficult time for this league, but I think last season showed everyone we have what it takes to get our fans' hearts back," Bettman added, evidently speaking of the high standard of play preceding the strike.
Although the NHL has yet to sign a broadcast package contract with a major television station, most networks say they are committed to giving out the more important hockey scores if time permits. ESPN, the last national network to feature a comprehensive schedule of NHL games, has said it will continue to report results of games during the popular Did You Know? segment, and would consider showing any Game 7 of a championship series if the NHL could afford the airtime.