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eric duhatschek

In the early stages of the NHL labour dispute, much of the talk has focused on who is winning the public-relations battle among fans – players or owners. Here's the correct answer: It doesn't matter. Not now. Not yet.

Whatever the fans may think about billionaire owners and millionaire players dividing a $3.3-billion pie isn't going to tangibly affect the outcome of the current negotiations, which are locked in a stalemate, with the labour agreement set to expire on Saturday.

The fans can only make a difference once the matter is resolved and the NHL goes back to work, whenever that happens.

But assuming that the tea leaves are being read correctly and it will be a long, bitter and protracted dispute, that's when a significant fan backlash could teach both sides an important lesson about – once again – toying with their fierce loyalty.

That was supposed to happen back in 2005, remember, the last time NHL owners and players went to war and put their own selfish interests ahead of their customers and clients.

During that season without hockey, there was a great deal of unhappiness expressed by fans of the game. Petitions were circulated. Homegrown solutions were crafted.

Many swore they'd never come back, never attend another game live, never watch it on TV, never buy another commemorative jersey, T-shirt or hat.

Anger was widespread. Vitriol spewed. It sounded real and raw and the NHL and the players association were acutely aware that public sentiment eventually came to run heavily against both sides.

Owners and players were so fearful of a backlash for the first post-lockout season, 2005-06, that they set revenue targets deliberately low, on the grounds that they didn't know what to expect, or how long it might take them to woo a dissatisfied public back into their good graces.

The two sides thought that a $2.1-billion business might even shrink for a year or two, the way it did when Major League Baseball cancelled the World Series in the middle of a 232-day player strike in 1994-95.

Baseball recorded almost a decline of 20 per cent, year-over-year, in paid attendance when play resumed in 1995. The head of the players association, one Donald Fehr, was booed at the New York Yankees' home opener. A fan in Cincinnati paid to have an airplane fly over the local ballpark, with a sign that told players and owners "to hell with you both."

It was a sobering moment for baseball and wow, what a surprise, some 17 years and counting later, they haven't ventured down that same idiotic path since.

Sadly, NHL fans didn't follow through on their threats. Instead, they stampeded back in droves, so much so that when revenues were calculated at the end of that first season, not only did players get all their escrow withholding dollars back, they were actually paid a bonus.

Things really were that good – and they continued to get better in each subsequent season, to the point where the NHL grew to be a $3-billion annual business.

Too bad hockey fans didn't follow the lead of their baseball counterparts and punish the NHL for a year or two coming out of the last lockout. Under those circumstances, is there any chance that owners or players would risk another extended labour dispute? Seems unlikely. It was only because the NHL avoided the sort of pain that baseball endured that emboldened the two sides to gird for war again.

The players see themselves as indispensable assets – and that without them, there would be no show. The owners believe that their product is so entrenched in the sporting culture, especially in Canada, that they can risk alienating all those fans who flocked back last time because they will return once again.

But will they? Or more important, should they? All the unhappiness that manifests itself in online petitions, on message boards and on talk radio needs to be translated into a meaningful movement that will send an important message to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and to Fehr, who now runs the NHL Players' Association. The two sides convene in New York later this week, and if this past summer is any indication, they will be more concerned with defending their own entrenched positions rather than negotiating a timely settlement.

Right now, the fans can't do much, except in the most peripheral way. But they sure can have an influence on how the industry of hockey looks once the dispute is settled – this time, by sticking to their guns, and legitimately learning to live without NHL hockey.

If the return of the NHL is greeted by a collective public indifference, only then can these poor souls – owners and players – be jarred out of their collective fog. If that had happened seven years ago, if it had taken a couple of seasons to get the league back in the public's good graces, then all the talk this week would be about the opening of training camps and the hope that accompanies a new season.

Instead, we have this. A pity really – and something to file away until they eventually settle and launch some cutesy Game On! advertising campaign, designed to convince fans to forgive and forget.

One word of advice for the weary, underappreciated paying customer: Don't.