Will NHL get its audience back?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s assessment of the loyalty of hockey fans appears to be borne out by a new poll, at least north of the 49th parallel. The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey suggests a strong majority of Canadian hockey fans will keep watching when National Hockey League games return this weekend after a three-month lockout […]

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s assessment of the loyalty of hockey fans appears to be borne out by a new poll, at least north of the 49th parallel.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey suggests a strong majority of Canadian hockey fans will keep watching when National Hockey League games return this weekend after a three-month lockout by team owners.

The poll found that two out of three respondents – 66% – say they’ll watch about the same amount of hockey as in the past, while just under one in four – 23% – say they’ll watch less.

While taking a hit on a quarter of your customer base might seem like a big deal, the level of fan vitriol levelled at the league during the labour dispute indicated the anger was much deeper.

The NHL’s third lockout in 20 years prompted a lot of loud complaints that the game’s customers were being taken for granted, and threats of fan boycotts.

Among the most avid NHL fans, the survey found that 69% said they’ll watch about the same amount of hockey and another 11% said they’ll actually watch more, while 19% said they’ll watch less.

Bettman, the NHL’s long-standing commissioner who has presided over all three labour lockouts, ruffled some feathers early in the labour dispute when he suggested that fans would always return because of their loyalty.

“We recovered well last time because we have the world’s greatest fans,” Bettman said last August in Toronto.

Indeed, after the entire 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout, attendance rebounded in 2005-06, with a majority of NHL teams actually increasing their gate.

But the prominence of social media sites seemed to amplify fan anger this time around.

Sites like NHLFanBoycott.com, @UnfollowNHLSept and the much ballyhooed “Just Drop It” movement – which urged fans to boycott future games in equal number to the length of the lockout – attracted a lot of media attention and became lightning rods for fan displeasure.

But all indications are that fans are streaming back.

An estimated 5,000 people turned up in Winnipeg for the Jets first practice last weekend and at least 2,000 fans turned out Sunday to watch the Philadelphia Flyers practise.

Even in San Jose, the sun-dappled home of the NHL Sharks, the team managed to attract a few hundred diehard fans to a practice, according to news reports.

The Harris-Decima telephone poll of just over 1,000 respondents was conducted Jan. 10-14, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

The survey found that a majority, 59%, blame both the owners and players equally for the lockout, with another one in five laying the blame solely on ownership and just less than one in 10 blaming the players.

Among the population at large, only 12% said they missed NHL hockey a lot, while another 20% said they missed it a little.

Two out of three respondents, 67%, said they did not miss NHL hockey.

Just 16% of the 1,000-person Harris-Decima sample described themselves as avid NHL fans – but among them fully 92% said they missed the game a lot (62%) or a little (30%).

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