Waters: ‘Who cares’ turns to ‘we care’ as NHL play returns.

Despite all the talk about not caring if there is an NHL season this year, fans are fans at heart and will return.

So, NHL hockey is back. Well, according to the two guys most responsible for it going away in the first place, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Player Association executive director Donald Fehr, it’s coming back.

They say fans can expect a 48 or 50 game schedule—depending on how quickly the deal they reached Sunday can be ratified by the players and team owners.

Based on the amount of ink, air time and Internet posts that the 116-day lockout generated in this country, it’s surprising it was not named news-maker of the year for 2012. It seemed every day we had to hear about how the two sides were talking, not talking, moving toward a deal, miles apart. Blah, blah, blah.

The question now is will the fans return after suffering through the second NHL lockout in eight years. The 2004-2005 lockout cost the league an entire season. This one cost half a season, plus the Winter Classic games and the All-Star Game.

But if I had to put money on it, I would bet the fans will be back in their seats, roaring their support for their teams quicker than you can say “he shoots, he scores.”

Despite all the grumbling about not caring if NHL players hit the ice again during the last few months, sports fans are exactly that—fans.

The NHL stole their season in 2004-05 but the fans again once that dispute was settled. They not only forgave, they seemed to forget. They flocked back to most arenas, paying exorbitant prices for tickets, beer, hot dogs and even those tacky foam fingers. And none of the fingers were directed at league or its players.

The bottom line is professional sports in North America is entertainment pure and simple.

Sure, purists will prattle on about athletes and skill but without the ticket-buying public there would be no professional sports and no billion of dollars for rich players and even richer team owners to fight over.

By late March—about half way through this scaled back season we are about to experience—life will be back to normal. Those fans who figure they can teach the league a lesson by voting with their feet and staying away will have returned and life without hockey—NHL hockey that is— will be distant memory.

With the new deal having a 10-year lifespan, labour peace should be the norm for the NHL for a while. But given its penchant for picking fights on and off the ice, the hockey folks will likely find something to screw up this new found sense of harmony between now and 2023.

And in the end, a shorter season may be good for the game. A shorter season may bring some excitement to early and mid-season games and that can only be a good thing.

As for the rest, that’s hockey.

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.