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Commentary: NHL Doesn’t Deserve Loyalty of Fans It Still Has

They’ll forgive.

The hockey hardcore always do.

Any residual public anger over the NHL’s third significant work stoppage in the last 20 years will ebb once “training camp” opens at week’s end. They’ll rush to start a bastardized 48- or 50-game schedule in another 12 days, with owners confident that their starved fan base will eagerly pay premium ticket prices for a watered-down, injury-riddled product because that somehow beats having no hockey at all.

Do you need any more evidence that no professional sport treats its loyal fan base as shabbily as the NHL?

Handle them like garbage. No worries. They’ll always come back.

The NHL doesn’t care because it knows that hockey is more deeply embedded in the blood of its true fans, perhaps more so than any other sport. They’ll pack most of the arenas when the abbreviated season begins on Jan. 19 despite an opening two weeks that will resemble a glorified exhibition season because the addiction’s so strong for a sport they so dearly cannot live without.

The NHL forfeited any hope of attracting any mainstream appeal with this 113-day lockout. The masses didn’t miss it. Not with the NFL, NBA, college football and college basketball filling the vacuum. There were likely those when word filtered down early Sunday morning that the lockout had ended responded, “What lockout?”

The NHL remains the one league that depends heavily on ticket sales. It’s not the casual fan buying those tickets as is the case in the NFL and MLB. It’s the impassioned hardcore follower who’s had season tickets for years, who find a way to get to as many games as possible despite the economic hardships because there’s a special bond with the sport.

This dispute was no different than the owner-induced NFL and NBA lockouts in 2011. And can’t we all relate to billionaires battling with millionaires?

I know Detroit badly missed its Red Wings and it can’t wait to rock Joe Louis Arena again.

But there should be a symbolic gesture from the fans that although they’ll forgive, they can’t forget the recklessness of those entrusted with building as well as protecting the sport.

When the NHL returns, every fan should stand up in their seats and turn their backs away from the action for the first couple minutes of the first game back.

Do what they did to you.

Turn your backs on them.

It’s purely emblematic. The owners won’t drop to their knees in anguish over their careless handling of their product. The players won’t pay attention. But it would — for a split moment — tell those who needlessly shut down the sport that although their actions didn’t diminish the fans’ love of their favorite sport, it made them realize that the NHL doesn’t appreciate its fans as much as it should.

Will the NHL offer an apology or some type of minimal restitution to those whose livelihoods depend on a full 41-game slate of home games? What about the downtown restaurant and bar employees who count on steady foot traffic on Wings’ game nights? What about the Joe Louis concession workers who rely on multiple jobs to make basic ends meet?

Their “reward” is half a season is better than none at all.

But quite honestly, neither the owners nor the players deserve much appreciation for finally ending something that never should’ve started in the first place.