NHL Starting to Lose the Diehards

Minneapolis — Josh Petzel coaches Pee Wee hockey in the suburbs, plays in four adult leagues, spends a boatload of money on hockey sticks and other equipment every year and has shared Minnesota Wild season tickets the past five seasons.

The guy is a hockey nut. He’s also fed up with the ongoing NHL lockout, so much so that he called his buddies and told them that he’s no longer interested in splitting Wild tickets with them.

Instead, Petzel is using that money to remodel his kitchen and get new appliances.

“(The lockout) basically just emotionally depleted me on this situation,” said Petzel, managing partner of Cara Irish Pubs.

He’s not alone. Mendota Heights, Minn., resident Tom Graves purchased Wild season tickets the first day they went on sale after the organization came into existence. Graves and his wife have talked about canceling them because they’re frustrated by the labor stalemate and they’ve found other things to do. They go to movies, enjoy eating out and attend Minnesota Gophers hockey games now.

“We’re definitely finding things to fill our time,” Graves said. “Honestly, it’s kind of nice to have some money to use for other things, too.”

Both Petzel and Graves admittedly are hockey diehards, which should scare the NHL and players union into resolving their differences pronto. If the diehards are moving on, imagine the indifference among fringe or casual fans who don’t require much push to turn elsewhere. The NHL can’t afford that.

As the lockout approaches three months, the two sides were forced to regroup after an amateurish display that elevated the anger level tenfold and revealed a maddening disconnect between the participants. It’s both incomprehensible and comical that players union chief Donald Fehr would call a news conference Thursday night to declare an end to the lockout was near, only to return moments later and announce the league had pulled its proposal off the table by voice mail.

Neither side is free of blame. That’s never the case in these labor situations, and this dispute has dissolved into a stare-down between two egomaniacs, Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who is now overseeing his third lockout.

However they achieve compromise, the two sides are foolish if they think their sport is popular enough that fans will return in flocks, even in this self-described state of hockey. Hockey fans, by nature, are loyal and passionate. They shell out big bucks to buy replica jerseys and attend games on Tuesday night in the dead of winter. Though frustrated and angry now, those diehards likely will return once the puck drops again.

But unlike the NFL’s recent lockout, the NHL is not embraced by the masses to the degree that it can expect to avoid substantial losses at the ticket office. The NHL doesn’t have a massive TV deal. Hockey doesn’t lead SportsCenter. Outside of Canada, the sport’s popularity doesn’t rank high on the pecking order.

It’s almost as if the lockout has created an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward hockey. Anger eventually goes away. Indifference is harder to change.

“There’s going to be people that will stay away because they’re just turned off,” Graves said. “There will be other people who will want to come back, too. For me, I’ll probably come back, but I know it’s not going to be with open arms and with as much excitement as I had.”

Some NHL teams already have difficulty selling tickets and attracting fans under normal circumstances. Good luck doing so now. Even the Wild has struggled to fill Xcel Energy Center on a regular basis the past two seasons. And any momentum the Wild created among casual fans with the summer signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter has vanished. Remember those July 4 fireworks? Poof, gone.

Maybe that excitement will return if the season is salvaged. But maybe not. The league undoubtedly will go to great lengths to thank fans for their patience and loyalty. Those self-serving gestures will probably fall on deaf ears.

“I’m going to watch the games on TV and I’m going to continue to read everything I can,” Petzel said. “But the conscious decision I’m going to make is, I’m not going to put one dollar towards it.”

Shawn Larson held Wild season tickets since the team’s second season but canceled them two weeks ago. He doesn’t blame the Wild necessarily, but “it’s the whole process that’s disheartening. This is the second (lockout) we’ve been through as season ticket holders.”

Larson loves hockey though, and he admits he’ll eventually return.

“I don’t want to totally say no because that will probably make me a hypocrite,” he said. “But I can’t tell you how long it will take.”