MONTREAL – After months of waiting and hoping, hockey fans reacted with a mix of emotions Sunday to news of a tentative agreement between the NHL and its players.
Many expressed excitement at the prospect of the season finally getting started, but for others a bitter taste remained.
The lockout created a lot of grief for hardcore fans and a caused significant loss of revenue for certain small businesses. As news of the tentative deal emerged, some weren’t sure if they wanted to welcome back the NHL with open arms—at least not right away.
Kevin Bourne, a self-described Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators fan, said he was happy the season was likely saved but he wasn’t sure he’d watch any upcoming games as religiously as before.
“I don’t think fans were really respected in the whole thing,” said Bourne, 32, at Toronto’s Eaton Centre.
“Now that it’s been gone for so long, I started gravitating to other sports.”
The tentative deal to end the 113-day NHL lockout and save the season was reached early Sunday following a marathon negotiating session that went through the night.
While some treated the news with muted enthusiasm, at least one observer said excitement around the season was likely to build once players returned to the ice.
Bruno Delorme, who teaches sports marketing at Concordia and McGill University in Montreal, predicted any animosity among fans won’t last long—at least in Canada.
He said NHL teams here likely won’t see much of a post-lockout dip in interest, although he did warn that teams in less traditional markets in the southern United States could suffer considerable damage.
“We will come back, it’s our national sport,” Delorme said of Canuck enthusiasm for the NHL.
“There’s just not enough secondary interests or other popular sporting events that can replace hockey.”
That view was shared by another fan in Toronto, who said he had no doubt that people were going to flock back to their arena seats and television screens once the league starts up again.
“I think (people) love their hockey,” said Bill Mitchell, who was visiting from Potsdam, N.Y.
“There might be a few who might be upset, but I think they will come out in droves.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a passionate hockey fan himself, also greeted the news with enthusiasm.
“Great news for hockey fans and communities across Canada,” he said on Twitter.
Long-suffering businesses, meanwhile, responded with relief.
Arun Srivastava, who runs a tourist boutique in Old Montreal filled with Habs T-shirts and sweaters, said sales dropped off considerably during the lockout.
“We depend on this business in winter time when there’s not that many tourists,” he said. “A lot of tour groups bring passionate hockey fans to watch the games over here.”
Bars and restaurants near NHL arenas were particularly hard hit.
One Montreal bar owner, Peter Sergakis, said on Saturday that several bars would close if the NHL didn’t return this season. He said business was down by 40 per cent compared to last year.
A report released last month by credit and debit card processor Moneris found that overall spending at venues near NHL arenas in Canada had decreased more than 11 per cent from a year ago on a game day.
A return to NHL action may have a downside for some though—less free time around the house.
Natalie Ricard, who was visiting Montreal from Trois-Rivieres, Que., for her son’s hockey tournament, said the lockout gave her extra hours with her partner and their children.
Now, she probably won’t see them as much during the evenings, she said.
“I’m going to find myself alone again, watching movies in another room,” she said.
Some fans, though, insist they won’t devote as much attention the league.
Stan Milousis, who cheers for the San Jose Sharks, said he used to watch the NHL twice a week, but felt there were a myriad of problems, even before the lockout.
“Even though the lockout is done and they made their deal, the NHL in general has a lot of work to do,” said the 35-year-old Toronto fan.
Brian Cooper, head of the Toronto-based sports marketing firm S&E Sponsorship Group, said it’s clear the league will have some work to do on the public relations front.
“I think they’ll have to find ways to reward fans for their patience—and the players do too,” Cooper said, adding that the NHL must now focus on what drew people to the sport in the first place.
“The passion, the speed, the beauty of NHL hockey. It’s got the best players in the world.”
Jonathan Flint of Vancouver, who was wearing a Calgary Flames toque on a chilly Sunday in the city’s downtown, is among those eager to cheer the players on.
“Everyone’s going to want to watch hockey,” said Flint, 36. “It would be annoying not having the Stanley Cup.”
Still, while Flint said he was skeptical of people who criticize the players for their high salaries, he thought the labour dispute happened at the “wrong time.”
“People get paid what they get paid because of what the market is—people love sports, and athletes are always going to make a lot of money,” he said.
“At the same time, a lot of people were unemployed, a recession had hit, and you’re hearing (players) whine about making the highest league minimum in the world.”
—with files from Linda Nguyen in Toronto and James Keller in Vancouver