One of the gross oversimplifications of the NHL lockout is the tendency for all the stakeholders – owners, players, commissioner, union, chroniclers – to discuss "fans" of the game as if they were some single, defined body, one indistinguishable from the next.
They are not. Not by a long shot. NHL fans come in all shapes and stripes. There are crazed fans, keen fans, corporate fans, fair-weather fans, casual fans and – believe it or not – a few that barely care the 2012-13 season is stuck in the starting gate.
That's why the question you hear a lot these days – will the fans return if the labour dispute is resolved? – does not lend itself to a simple yes or no answer.
There is a percentage of mostly silent hockey fans not all that bothered by the lockout. They are the ones who follow the league intermittently – catching the odd game on TSN or Hockey Night in Canada, maybe seeing a game in person a couple of times a year – but who really don't get engaged until the regular season is winding down and the playoffs are on the horizon.
Many with a moderate to indifferent commitment have found other distractions to keep them busy – baseball playoffs, crunch time in the CFL, the NFL turning for home. They won't feel their first withdrawal symptoms until Christmas at the earliest, and maybe not even then, but either way, they will almost certainly return once the NHL and the players' association hammer out a new agreement.
They miss the game a little, and might miss it a little bit more if the NHL season is put fully on ice, but they're not getting too worked up about who is public enemy No. 1 (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman or NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr). They are the ones who post on websites, "wake me up when it's over" – if they bother to post at all.
That is a far different element of the constituency than the fans who are taking the lockout personally. This important and hard-core demographic is the one at risk the longer the dispute drags on.
Unlike casual fans, the early stages of the season matter to them. They are loyal to their teams and to their stars. They want to see loyalty in return.
They wanted to draft their fantasy hockey teams in October. They are bothered because, by now, they should know how the promise of off-season change has been fulfilled by the teams they support.
They do vilify the negotiators on both sides for their intransigence – because they know they'll eventually settle on some sort of 50-50 split anyway, so why lose a quarter of the regular season, plus the Winter Classic, to bridge such a small gap?
This is the constituency Bettman, Fehr and the rest need to worry about. They should be the unseen third party in the room during this week's critical talks.
It shouldn't be that difficult to remember how, in 2004-05, just before negotiations between Bettman and former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow fell apart, the two sides were at a similarly critical moment – and ultimately moved off previously firm positions in the hopes of salvaging some portion of the season. The owners retreated off their need for a link between salaries and revenues; the players pondered a salary cap after saying they would never agree to a salary cap.
They did so largely because they were fearful of how much damage they could do to the industry if they lost a full season. Eventually, when they did settle, the first salary cap came in at a modest $39.5-million (U.S.) per season – largely because they couldn't predict if revenues would rise or fall in the first postlockout season.
So here they are again, playing with fire once more.
In all likelihood, casual and moderately engaged fans will forgive and forget if there's a settlement soon.
The wild card is with the hard-core supporters, the people who consume the product from the start to the end of the season, buying tickets and propping up the TV numbers.
Some are suggesting, in fan Internet forums, that this is it for them. They are so disgusted by a second lockout in eight years, they want to teach the whole sorry lot a lesson by finding something else to do when NHL play resumes.
If enough of them stick to their guns, stay mad and fall by the wayside, the NHL will have a real problem with its "fans" – however they may want to count or categorize them.