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NHL players determined to win apathetic fans back after lockout

Sean Leahy
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ATLANTIC CITY, NJ -- As the NHL lockout drags on into Day 72, hockey fans are firmly entrenched in one three categories: pro-owner, pro-player or completely apathetic.

In the end, fans don't care who ends up with what percent of the pie, they just want to be guaranteed affordable ticket prices and the ability for their favorite team to put a competitive product on the ice. But as we sit and wait for a new CBA, as the NHL cancels games yet again, some fans have already moved on. What was once anger turned to apathy, and when the NHL does return, some of those fans won't.

No matter who "wins" in this labor negotiation, both sides will have work ahead of them to repair their relationships with fans.

For the owners, it's the hope among fans that ticket prices are decreased and the overall game experience is improved. For the NHL, it's the hope of increased fan relations and concessions of their own, like free Center Ice or GameCenter Live for a season.

For the players, it's through continued outreach in the community. Already through this lockout we've seen numerous players drop in on minor hockey practices and do everything they can to keep in touch with fans. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has mentioned throughout this process that the players were willing to get back on ice while negotiating a deal, but the owners chose against that idea.

"You just hope that they [the fans] understand what we're going through and what we're doing as players," said Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos after the Operation Hat Trick charity game in Atlantic City on Saturday night.

"I think this [the event] goes a long way for the fans to show the players that the fans are very knowledgeable of what's going on and how they support us," said Stamkos. "We really hope that we're going to get going soon and that they're going to be there supporting their hometown teams. We're sorry the fans are going through this, but it's something that is part of the business and it hopefully gets resolved soon."

Stamkos called the atmosphere inside Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night "bone-chilling" and New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi also took note of the passionate crowd. Despite it being a charity game, he was not only in enemy territory as a division rival, but also playing on a team going up against a number of Philadelphia Flyers. Girardi believes that other than the on-going outreach with fans, for the players, just getting the game back on ice will make a major difference in getting upset fans back on their side.

"Just by playing the game of hockey the way it's supposed to be played; playing it hard and just giving them great games and I think that's all we can do," said Girardi.

But it's not just the NHL fanbase that's angry about it being Nov. 26 and not one game has been played, the players are feeling the same way; salaries lost that they'll never recoup and time on careers gone that for many are vital.

"I think we feel the same as [the fans] do: angry," said Los Angeles Kings forward Justin Williams. "At the same time, you're not going to come back and win everyone back at once. When the game does get back on ice it'll take time. Just like everything.

"We'll do our best to get everyone back and put a good product on the ice and that's all we really can do."

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy

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