The National Hockey League ended its 301-day work stoppage this week by agreeing to a new labor contract with its players union. Now the question is whether or not the league can recapture the fan base it held before canceling the 2004-2005 season.
As the General Manager of the National Hockey League's New Jersey Devils, which play across the Hudson River from New York City, Lou Lamoriello is well aware of how important it is for his team to cultivate a strong fan base. Even though the Devils have won two Stanley Cups in the last five seasons, the team's average attendance has been in the bottom half of the league during that entire time.
"Certainly in our organization right now, our fans are as important as anyone," he said.
Bringing fans back to the game will be one of the biggest tasks facing the NHL as it returns to the ice from the work stoppage that canceled last season. A few hours south down the highway from New Jersey, sports fans here in Washington, home of the NHL's Washington Capitals, had mixed opinions as to whether or not they would embrace ice hockey once again.
Some fans were very happy.
FAN 1: "Well I go to school in Boston, and it kind of sucked because we could go in for the [Boston] Red Sox [baseball team] winning, but then there was no hockey and I'm a [Boston] Bruins fan."
Others did not care about the sport before the work stoppage, and don't plan to now.
"If I played, then I'd probably be a fan, but I don't play," said another sports fan.
And there were fans who were in between, such as this one, who said he only attends one or two games a year and was upset by both sides of the labor dispute.
FAN 2: "I think the owners did it to themselves, the players did it to themselves by being selfish."
Proof of how far the NHL has fallen in the American sports landscape could be found at the sports apparel store inside the MCI Center, the home of the Washington Capitals since 1997. The arena is also the home of the National Basketball Association's Washington Wizards, which have dominated the winter sports scene in the Capitals' absence. The store's manager, Michelle Austin, has kept an eye on the number of people who have bought each team's merchandise.
"Right now it's more the tourists -- the tourists come in and they'll look for hockey. But other than that, basketball, since the Wizards did so good this year," she said.
Nonetheless, Austin said that she is happy to see hockey return.
"I missed it this year. The fans still came in and they'll converse. They don't know if there are going to be as much fans as there were, but I did miss it," she added.
Thirty teams from around the country will face off when the season begins in three months.