Each week, The Herald-Whig sports staff and a member of the WGEM sports staff will debate a pertinent topic. Here is this week's question:
"Can the NHL win its fans back?"
Matt Schuckman, Sports Editor
St. Louis Blues fans gave the franchise and the NHL the answer to this question in a very loud way.
They said, "We're still here."
The night the Blues opened training camp once the lockout was officially over, an estimated crowd of 5,000 fans showed up at the training facility to welcome back their beloved team.
Anticipation was going to be high when this season began thanks to last year's 109-point campaign, the return of a young, talented roster and the addition of a ballyhooed Russian rookie. Now, with a short season and the notion younger, fresher teams should excel, Blues fans anticipate a Stanley Cup push.
I understand this is a limited sampling, and a lot of other hockey towns are excited as well. Still, it's a sign the game can thrive in those cities even after a bitter labor dispute.
The real question is this: Can it thrive everywhere else?
Or maybe this is what should be asked: Does it need to thrive outside of hockey towns?
The NHL doesn't need to win fans back in places like Mobile, Ala., or Little Rock, Ark., as long as fans in Detroit, Montreal and Chicago hold true to their hockey roots. If the reaction in St. Louis in any indication, those fans are here to stay.
Blake Toppmeyer, Sports Writer
The NHL couldn't afford to have another full season missed due to a lockout. Some hockey fans never returned to the game after a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
By avoiding a full lockout though, I don't see any mass exodus of hockey fans coming. In fact, shortening the season to 48 games might actually help the league gain more attention.
One of the complaints from fringe hockey fans has always been that the season is too long. It's tough to keep the attention of some fans when the season spans from early October to mid June.
Now, the season will be a five-month whirlwind. Every game carries more meaning this season.
Rather than being discouraged by the cancellation of 34 games, I think fans are encouraged by the fact that, this time, the NHL found a solution to the problem before the entire season was lost.
The St. Louis Blues announced that 10,200 fans showed up Thursday night at the Scottrade Center to watch the team's final scrimmage before its season begins Saturday. That doesn't sound like a fan base that's angry. It sounds like a fan base that's excited.
Josh Rizzo, Sports Writer
The National Hockey League will have no problem winning back its hard-core base. The hardcore fans have been through three labor stoppages in the last 20 years, if they made it through that, they can make it through anything.
For the casual fan, it will be a tough sell. Though the NHL has several young hot stars and a solid product, leaving the national sports scene has moved on without it.
There are still two more rounds of the NFL playoffs going on, along with college and pro basketball. By the time the season gets going, Major League Baseball will be back to steal viewers.
The league also had to change its schedule to eliminate inter-conference games, meaning St. Louis will only take on Western Conference foes. I'm upset as a casual fan because that means my hometown Pittsburgh Penguins will no longer be coming to St. Louis.
Another silly labor battle ruined that, and I'm not sure the NHL can do anything to win me back this year.
Josh Houchins, WGEM SportsCenter Host
With his face and chest painted red and black, David Puddy will always be a New Jersey Devils fan. The league could shut down for multiple years and the hilarious secondary Seinfeld character would be the first in line for tickets.
It's just a tad tougher to get his pals to tag along now to complete the phrase painted on his chest, though.
The NHL will not have a problem getting die-hard fans to return. Heck, the St. Louis Blues were reporting a near Opening Night sell out shortly after tickets were released for the Detroit game. And one must remember that with it being January, sports fans in general will be searching for something to watch now that this country's favorite sport season is almost done.
After this shortened season is over and the Blues are done hoisting the team's first Stanley Cup from shoulder to shoulder on the Scottrade Center ice, I don't see the average attendance dropping that much from 2011-12. It may even be a bit higher due to the immediacy of the season. The key, as always, will be growing the game years following a lockout.
With this being the third player lockout since 1994 in the NHL, the league should have a good playbook (good and bad calls) on how to get fans back. When the Stanley Cup wasn't even handed out after the 2004-05 season due to a labor dispute, a Canadian fan poll was conducted and over 50-percent placed blame on the players. I feel this year if that poll was distributed again, a majority of the fault would lie at the feet of commissioner Gary Bettman. Possibly, it's easier now for fans to not hate the wealthy players this time.
If the NHL continues its trend (is one team a trend?) of relocating teams back to hockey towns like Winnipeg, the support will return and maybe, just maybe, Puddy will have enough pals to go to a game.
Or maybe Me, Schuck, Topper, Rizzo, and Marth will each take a letter and bare our chests for the Blues!