Three generations of the Ribble family hurried through a parking lot in suburban Detroit, eager to see the Red Wings practice when the lockout finally ended.
"I was getting nervous we weren't going to have hockey this year," said Reid Ribble, whose dad joined him, his wife and their two young sons to watch the Red Wings skate last Sunday. "I'm glad they got it figured out."
It took a while and it might end up being a costly blow to the sport. The NHL, its teams and players have work to do to win people back after the third work stoppage in less than two decades.
"We all know there's a debt there to the fans," said Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews, who took part in negotiations with the NHL.
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Teams have tried to apologize with free food, beer and tickets, along with discounted gear and access to the players. The harder work begins Saturday, when 13 games kick off a lockout-shortened season where each team has a 48-game sprint before the playoffs.
"The lockout hurt the game, so we definitely want to do everything we can do to give them a good show," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said.
Practices and scrimmages were open to the public for free and fans flocked to arenas in some cities such as Philadelphia, where 15,000 fans watched the Flyers skate.
Flyers owner Ed Snider said "very, very few" of the team's season-ticket holders canceled their packages.
"They stuck with us," Snider said.
Not everyone, of course, can afford to buy a ticket and some states don't even have a team.
That's why hockey is hoping to fare better on TV, the best source of revenue in sports. Restarting the season now — as the NFL is winding down, college football is done and baseball is idle — might help the NHL.
"They got rid of the right games during the lockout because there isn't as much competition compared to when they usually start seasons," Ganis said. "What will be interesting to watch is whether the lack of an uprising from fans is because they expected the lockout, or because there isn't a depth of passion for the sport in this country."
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