ST. LOUIS, Mo. (HockeyStL) -- Training camp is underway, and the Blues are less than a week from the start of the shortened 2012-13 season.
As Blues captain David Backes put it, the lockout has been an unfortunate emotional roller coaster with many ups and downs.
Both the National Hockey League and the union did a good job of turning fans off to the sport. They both used the media to relay false info in order to win the public relations battle, and it will cost the sport some fans. The small-market Blues cannot afford to lose customers, especially since new owner Tom Stillman is looking to get the Blues back on solid financial footing, but it remains to be seen how big of a hit the Blues will take.
Reactions on social media sites have been overwhelming throughout the lockout. Fans expressed their anger to media members, and clearly neither negotiating party took notice. Yet, when a deal was announced more than a week ago, fans’ excitement was evident. However, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman was quick to apologize to fans.
"Most importantly to our fans, who love and have missed NHL hockey, I am sorry,” said Bettman at a press conference announcing a deal had been reached in New York last week.
"The National Hockey League has the responsibility to earn back your trust and support, whether you watch one game or every game," Bettman said. "That effort begins today. The players are ready to play their hearts out for you, the teams are preparing to welcome you back with open arms, the wait is just about over. Like all of you, we can't wait to drop the puck."
Bettman would not go into specifics as to how the league would attempt to win back fans, but there appears to be something in the works.
The wait was especially hard for Blues fans. The Note made the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season, and they are primed to do so again. At first glance, it appears that support for the Note is as strong as ever. Fans packed the Ice Zone on Friday to get a pre-training camp glimpse at Russian prospect Vladimir Tarasenko, and have made their support for their team known wherever they can.
The support of the fans was even more evident on Sunday when the Blues took the ice for the first day of training camp at Scottrade Center, and saw the lower-bowl filled with fans.
“The crowd (of nearly 6,000 fans) was unbelievable,” said Hitchcock after Sunday’s practice. “The noise and the number of fans present was the best part (of Sunday’s practice).”
Last season, the Blues attracted a significant amount of ‘casual fans’ with their turnaround under head coach Ken Hitchcock, and with new ownership taking the reins, the fans were remaining onboard through the offseason, but threat of losing them to other sports was real when the lockout was enacted on Sept. 15. The Blues have already attempted to win back fans with ideas of their own.
“The support here in town is unbelievable,” said Hitchcock. “The hardcore group (of fans) is going to stick with us, but the next challenge is to get back the casual fans and that is totally in our hands. I just feel confident that if we play good hockey, we are going to pack the building.”
The team will be holding training camp at Scottrade Center, and opening the doors to the public free of charge. Deals on merchandise at the team store, and concession discounts will be in place all week for the fans that have continues to support the team. Most of the fans I talked to were angered by the lockout, but didn’t blame the Blues, and said they would be back to support their team.
“I've been a Blues fan my whole life, same as you," said Matt Perez of Overland Park, Kansas. “I was too young to remember the first lockout too much, but I was well into the 04-05 lockout. I remember the anger of not being able to watch hockey all winter. I had the same feeling this year. I knew back in September that I would be back as a fan as soon as the lockout ended. Some people shared the same feelings, some didn't. All-in-all I think fans are excited from what I've read on twitter. I've been a 12-game package holder for the last six years and I haven't lived in St. Louis for five of those years. I traveled from school in Warrensburg, Missouri (three hours away) and now Overland Park, Kansas (four hours away). I know personally I can't wait to be back at Scottrade, sitting in section 314 with my brother."
Unlike Perez, Rob and Daniel Spencer of Mascoutah, Illinois are new season ticket holders. They consider themselves fans of all St. Louis Sports, but their love for hockey is greatest. Rob and Daniel were attracted to the team because of the heart shown last year under Ken Hitchcock. They enjoyed watching the team give their all every night, and purchased season tickets for this year. Obviously they were disappointed to hear they might not have hockey.
“It was very frustrating for me and my son. We are new Blues season ticket holders, this is our first year. We bought the tickets at the end of the season last year after the Blues had a great season. We love all sports. We’re big Cards fans but if you were to ask us what our favorite team is the answer is the Blues. We love the players, the coaches, and the front office. The grit and the heart the team has shown is infectious. We couldn’t wait for this season to start. We never dreamed the lockout would go into the season.”
Rob, as angry as he was, did not want to see the Blues hurt as a result of the lockout, and urges fans to continue their support of the team.
“We are very upset with the NHL as a whole but it’s our opinion that the Blues are not a fault for the lockout. Mr. Stillman and the rest of the group that bought the Blues need to be supported. They have taken a great chance financially to keep our Blues in St. Louis. We don’t want them to fail. The people the lockout hurt the most are the ones that rely on the sport for their income, i.e. concessions, parking lot attendants, restaurant and bar owners. To stay away at this point is only hurting them. So, we will be there in Section 311, we’ll be as enthusiastic as ever and I expect most Blues fans will be there with us.”
Early into the lockout, the Blues were forced to lay off 20 employees, admitting that some would not be brought back when the season resumed. It was estimated that the NHL was losing $18-20 million a day which is money that teams are missing out on. Rob wasn’t the only fan to point out that the real victims are the workers that rely on hockey to make a living for themselves, and their families.
“I love the Blues and NHL hockey so much; I could never turn my back on them because of the lockout,” said Deanna Begley. “I cannot boycott the sport because by not spending my money on merchandise or tickets I would hurt the local employees and businesses much more than I would hurt the NHL. I’ll never know all of the tiny details of the CBA, I am just glad to have my hockey back.”
Begley says she is really angered by the lockout, but doesn’t blame just one side for the longevity of the work stoppage.
“I am not a fan of Bettman, but I am not naïve enough to believe he is solely at fault here. I agree with most that this lockout is a result of greediness. I suffered these past few months but I did what I had to do to stay strong.”
Time will tell if the Blues will suffer extensively from the lockout, but it appears that St. Louis Blues fans’ passion will shine bright amidst this ugly year for hockey.