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VOL. 37 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 11, 2013

Short NHL season might be more fun

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Between the start of the NFL playoffs and Monday night’s national college championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame, a surprise slid in under the sports radar on Sunday morning.

There will be a hockey season.

There will be an abbreviated, 48-game schedule for the Nashville Predators and the rest of the league, which for NHL diehards is better than no games at all.

For the casual hockey observer, however, I wonder just how many more labor disputes the league can handle.

Sure, hockey will be fine in places like Detroit, Toronto, Montreal, Philadelphia and the other cities where the NHL has thrived for many years.

In Nashville, and some other cities where hockey doesn’t have generations of loyal fans, coming back from a labor dispute might be a little tougher sell.

And that is the hurdle the Predators have to overcome as they come back to action some three months later than expected with roughly 60 percent of a season to sell.

When last we left the Predators, most things were on the upswing. They had won a playoff series to reach the second round of the postseason. Yes, they lost Ryan Suter and Jordin Tootoo, but were championing the fact that they ponied up to keep the face of the franchise, Shea Weber, matching a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet from the Flyers in the process.

As the Predators work to launch and market their abbreviated 2013 season, it isn’t that hard to figure out what those obstacles lay ahead on the ice.

Over the past year or so, the Preds have done a good job of marketing themselves and local ownership. Aided by a competitive product on the ice, average attendance rose from around 12,000 per game to 16,000 per game.

No one is going to pretend that each and every one of those 4,000 newcomers were suddenly hard-core hockey fans, so the trick is what do the Predators do in order to keep most – or all – of those new fans around after the league and the players wasted so much of the season.

The Preds are banking on a couple of things regarding their recovery from the lockout.

First, and most important, they should be returning a competitive and contending team for 2013. Other than Suter and Tootoo, the remainder of the roster returns virtually intact after making a moderately deep postseason run a year ago.

With an abbreviated training camp for an abbreviated season, the Preds are hoping that returning so many players from last year’s squad will help them hit the ground skating Jan. 19 when the season finally begins.

Any sports marketing person will tell you nothing – no giveaways, promotions or half-price concessions, draws spectators like a winning team.

Just ask the Tennessee Titans, who have been in a malaise over the past four years. Yes, their games are technically all sold out due to the sale of PSLs, but a sellout and a full house are two vastly different things.

So if the Predators want to win back their fans, then they can start by immediately winning games, let’s say seven or eight of the first 10.

The Predators also are hoping familiarity will ease the pain of the work stoppage. The team is now in its 15th season of existence, and its fan base is much better established.

In other words, hockey isn’t as foreign to sports fans in Nashville anymore as it was in the club’s first few years of existence. A whole generation of young adults, around age 25 or so, has been Preds fans for as long as they have followed sports.

Yes, there was the lockout that canceled an entire season a few years ago, but the Predators have to bank on fans being forgiving enough to a team that certainly has a stronger roster and a deeper following than it did the last time a lockout ruined things.

The final thing the local hockey team can use as a selling point is, ironically, the lockout itself. With only 48 games to play this season, every game means a little bit more. Game No. 10 of 82 doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight to many local sports fans, who are still focused on football in November.

But game No. 10 out of 48 at the beginning of February has some meaning, provided the Preds are in contention for a playoff spot.

Many believe last year’s NBA lockout – and shortened season – was good for the league. The same argument can be made for hockey.

For the Predators and the NHL, they have to hope the public is forgiving and the games are exciting.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.