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Ice Hockey: Owners face a cold war with fans after NHL lockout


The star players are back from their moonlighting in European winter leagues. The action, finally, is about to shift from the negotiating chamber back to the ice where it belongs. The crucial question is, how many people any longer care?

Today a truncated National Hockey League regular season begins. Its schedule has been reduced to 48 games from the customary 82 by the almost three-month-long lockout, that ended with ratification last weekend by NHL owners and players of a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement.

The 30 owners, led by the combative commissioner Gary Bettman, picked the "billionaires versus millionaires" fight, and in financial terms they won it. Their share of the league's $3bn (£1.88bn) in annual revenues rises from 43 per cent to 50 per cent, and they secured a tighter salary cap. The players' main consolation was a defined final pension scheme. In terms of blame, the owners were losers – and know it. Among the hockey faithful, "I hate Gary Bettman" T-shirts are the rage. Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Washington Capitals, wrote to fans this week: "We know we have fences to mend."

The NHL is the world's premier hockey league. But it's the smallest of the four traditional major league sports in the US, trailing far behind football, baseball and basketball and now challenged by Major League Soccer, in action only since 1996. While relatively small, the NHL's fan base has been astonishingly loyal. But for how long?

The lockout, and the perception that it was unnecessary, caused genuine bitterness. Fans with pre-paid season tickets will receive refunds for the 41 per cent of games they'll miss. But the bars, restaurants and other businesses dependent on the local team won't get their money back. The strike will be quickly forgotten in Canada, where hockey is the national pastime, and in northern American cities like Detroit, Boston and Pittsburgh, where the sport has deep roots.

Elsewhere, though, it may be a different story. The Los Angeles Kings are the defending Stanley Cup champions – but fans in smaller, newer franchises in sunny, non-hockey places could be harder to win back. The owners won. But their victory may be pyrrhic.