They cant help themselves. Its a matter of the heart, not the head.
No fans are more lovesick and star-crossed than those that follow hockey. Puck heads are beyond passionate. They adore their sport even when that affection is sometimes unrequited.
It doesnt seem to matter that the NHL hurt their collective feelings in 2004-05 with a nasty and protracted lockout that eliminated an entire season. Oh, sure, the fans were upset that the league would do something so callous -- step out on them like that and leave them home alone with nothing but their sad thoughts to keep them company on cold winter nights. But they forgave the NHL back then, and theyll almost certainly do it again.
Hockey fans love the sport. No matter how the league treats them, no matter how many times theyre taken for granted, they keep filling arenas in Philly and New York and Chicago and Detroit and Boston and Pittsburgh and in other towns where hockey isnt so much a sport as it is a long-lasting relationship. Hockey and its ardent supporters are married. Its till death do them part. You know it and they know it and the NHL knows it, too.
This latest lockout lasted 113 days. Thats a long time to make the fans twist and sweat over how the NHL abandoned them again. Those poor, put-upon souls. Hockey goes out for a figurative pack of cigarettes every seven to 10 years and the fans are left to wonder whether their one true love will come walking through their door again.
Im just thrilled. Im thrilled for our fans. Im thrilled for our players. And Im thrilled for everybody involved in hockey, Ed Snider said after the lockout ended (see story). All the people who have been hurting, Ive felt terrible for them. We look at it and we try to think in terms of the league in general. Just like the players look at it and try to look at the players in general. There are some things that have to be done that may not be something that we would necessarily care about, but there are a lot of teams that are hurting. We want the league to be strong. And I know the players want the players association to be strong. You get into these situations and its very, very unfortunate.
It is unfortunate. And yet that is how it goes for hockey admirers, the ones with the cartoon pucks instead of hearts popping out of their eyes. (At the Sixers game on Tuesday, fans chanted Lets Go Flyers when Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and Matt Read were shown on the video screen.) Flyers fans in particular will endure this latest unpleasantness. They will fill the Wells Fargo Center. They will return. It's what they do.
I dont like to make predictions like that, Snider cautioned. I know everybody was upset. I certainly hope they will be back. I know we had very, very, very few cancellations. I just think we have the greatest fans in the world. I kind of think theyll all come back. I hope I dont end up with egg on my face. If any of the fans out there are thinking about not coming back, please understand that nobody wanted this. Were just happy its over and we think its going to make the league stronger in the long run.
The chairman shouldnt worry so much. Maybe the faux fans in Phoenix and Columbus and other outposts will give up on hockey, but theyre not the ones who keep the league afloat anyway.
The people who buoy the NHL, the hyper-loyal supporters who keep it from sinking a little or a lot each season, are the ones who grew up with the sport and obsess over it. (Hi, Flyers fans.) Theyre the people who defend hockey against detractors who try to marginalize as some fringe pursuit. (Hi, again.) For them, its not enough to simply love the sport they want you and everyone else to love it with them. (Once more, with feeling: hey, hi, hello.)
Theyll be back. No matter how much the lockout pained them, no matter how many tears rolled down their cheeks and onto their expensive limited edition Winter Classic sweaters, theyll be there when the puck drops. Theyll smile when it happens, and whatever anger they harbored will eventually be replaced by happiness that hockey returned.
It is who they are. They cant help themselves. Theyre hockey fans.
Maybe you dont dig hockey. Or maybe you only watch it casually. Maybe you think Flyers fans are infected with an incurable sickness. And maybe youve forgotten that you dont get to pick whom or, in this case, what you fall in love with. It just sort of happens.