The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Poll suggests post-lockout NHL three-quarters full - or one quarter empty

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OTTAWA - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's assessment of the loyalty of hockey fans appears to be borne out by a new poll, at least for the hard core north of the 49th parallel.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey suggests a strong majority of Canadian hockey followers will keep watching when National Hockey League games return this weekend after a three-month lockout by team owners.

The poll found that two out of three respondents — 66 per cent — say they'll watch about the same amount of hockey as in the past, while just under one in four — 23 per cent — say they'll watch less.

"I think the poll supports the conventional wisdom of the fans, that the lockout has hurt the game," said pollster Allan Gregg, chairman of Harris-Decima.

"Who it's going to really, really hurt is the occasional fan, and that's not an insignificant chunk of the total population."

It's also not as dire as the most apocalyptic predictions.

The NHL's third lockout in 20 years prompted a lot of loud complaints that the game's best customers were being taken for granted, and led to threats of fan boycotts.

Sites like NHLfanboycott.com, @UnfollowNHLSept and the much ballyhooed "Just Drop It" movement — which urged fans to boycott future games in equal number to the length of the lockout — attracted a lot of media attention and became lightning rods for fan displeasure.

Yet among the most avid NHL followers, the survey found that 69 per cent said they'll watch about the same amount of hockey. Another 11 per cent said they'll actually watch more, while 19 per cent said they'll watch less.

Bettman, the NHL's long-standing commissioner who has presided over all three labour lockouts, ruffled some feathers early in the dispute when he said hardcore followers would always return because of their loyalty.

"We recovered well last time because we have the world's greatest fans,'' Bettman said last August in Toronto.

Indeed, after the entire 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout, attendance rebounded in 2005-06, with a majority of NHL teams actually increasing their gate.

But the prominence of social media sites seemed to amplify fan anger this time around.

All indications are that the true hard core is streaming back.

An estimated 5,000 people turned up in Winnipeg for the Jets first practice last weekend and at least 2,000 fans turned out Sunday to watch a Philadelphia Flyers practice.

Even in San Jose, the sun-dappled home of the NHL Sharks, the team managed to attract a few hundred diehard fans to a practice, according to news reports.

The Harris-Decima telephone poll of just over 1,000 respondents was conducted Jan. 10-14, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

The survey found that a majority, 59 per cent, blame both the owners and players equally for the lockout, with another one in five laying the blame solely on ownership and just less than one in 10 blaming the players.

Among the population at large, only 12 per cent said they missed NHL hockey a lot, while another 20 per cent said they missed it a little.

Two out of three respondents, 67 per cent, said they did not miss NHL hockey.

Gregg said that's the problem the league must face: Avid fans will return but many others won't.

"Yeah, only 23 per cent are saying they're going to be watching less and those are disproportionately among the occasional viewers," he said.

"But if you take that right across the board, can they afford 23 per cent fewer eyeballs over the course of the season?"

Just 16 per cent of the 1,000-person Harris-Decima sample described themselves as avid NHL fans — but among them fully 92 per cent said they missed the game a lot (62 per cent) or a little (30 per cent).

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