When the Wild hit the ice, will the fans fill the stands?

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA and JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 7, 2013 - 5:57 AM

Some fans say they have moved on for this season, but for others, half a season is still better than none.

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Kelly Raeth of Rosemount stayed up late to follow the NHL lockout negotiations and decided to wear an NHL jersey, for the first time since the lockout began, in celebration.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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The Minnesota Wild is headed back to the ice, but Sunday's tentative deal to end the 113-day National Hockey League lockout leaves one overriding question: How many people will show up for the games?

A block from the Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild will belatedly begin a 12th season, the assistant store manager at the newly expanded Cossetta's took a dim view. "I am a fan. I guess I'm disappointed that it took this long to figure it out. Really, I've kind of moved on -- winter's almost over," said Greg Fischer, who said he had heard little talk of the lockout settlement at the restaurant Sunday after it was announced.

But Tony Knopp of Spotlight TMS, a California-based company that manages corporate sports ticket buying, said the settlement probably came in the nick of time so corporations now considering season tickets for next fall -- most corporate buying is done nearly a season in advance -- could proceed with their purchases. "What you don't want to do with sponsors is you don't want to upset the status quo," said Knopp, who said he believed the NHL had narrowly averted a marketing and image "apocalypse." "If they see you're [going] to upset the status quo, now they're going to leave you.

"If they do play a 50-game schedule, I think that the fallout's going to be a lot less than people think." While some sports analysts maintain that professional hockey does not have national appeal, said Knopp, NHL fans are "as passionate as any other sport -- and I would say more so."

Even though Wild officials were keeping silent on the effect of the settlement, and awaiting its ratification by team owners and the players' union, others were also optimistically talking of finally starting a season that many fans had been anticipating because of the addition of high-profile free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

"We got half of a season back," said Joe Campbell, a spokesman for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. "Hopefully, we'll make up on the back end with a playoff run what we missed out on on the front end with a shortened season."

When he heard of the tentative settlement early Sunday, Kelly Raeth said he put on his Wild jersey and hat for the first time since the lockout began -- ending his own boycott. "That was my protest," he said. Now, said Raeth, as he stood inside the Xcel Energy Center on Sunday, he hoped to resume his part-time job at the arena selling Wild apparel on game nights.

"I am excited to see the ice full again and the place rocking like it should," he said.

For the Wild, the start of the season -- even an abbreviated one -- could not come too soon.

Xcel attendance had climbed following the last player's lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season, with 761,614 fans attending games in 2005-06. But after 761,288 fans came in 2008-09, attendance dropped noticeably as the Wild struggled to make the playoffs. Last year, attendance fell to 728,683.

In November, as this season's lockout completed its first full month, state sales taxes and lodging taxes in St. Paul increased slightly, mimicking what occurred during the 2004-05 lockout, which might not have been as damaging as was believed.

State revenue officials, who cautioned against drawing hard conclusions, said that sales tax figures actually increased 4.2 percent in St. Paul during January through May 2005, during that year's lockout, compared to the same five-month period in 2004 before the lockout occurred.

Local officials were clearly glad to have fans headed downtown again.

Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said this lockout hurt worse than the one eight years ago because it came after "four years of recession when businesses had already become as lean as you possibly can. Now, having 113 days of lockout has a significant impact on those businesses."

He pointed to the St. Paul Hotel, which sits a block from the arena and is the designated provider for visiting teams and media and counts on renting more than 50 rooms on game nights.

"I am absolutely ecstatic," Kramer said of the lockout's end.

But even Sunday's tentative deal could not diminish some realities that the hockey team faces in the competitive Twin Cities sports market. The biggest hockey news of the year still drew far fewer page views on the Star Tribune website Sunday than did the aftermath of Saturday's Minnesota Vikings playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.

On one fan page on the Wild's website, a fan suggested a boycott of the Wild's first home game to showcase the lingering anger, but then conceded that "the chances of that happening are pretty much zero" because "we are sheep and will go where we are herded."

Across from the arena, at the Liffey bar and restaurant, Jessica Clayson said her work hours were cut in half because of the lockout, some co-workers lost their jobs and others were no longer working enough hours to keep medical benefits. "I can start paying my bills," said a relieved Clayson.

Tom Reid, owner of a bar of the same name just two blocks from the Wild's home ice, also was eager to see the team back in action.

The former NHL player, who also works as a Wild radio broadcaster, said his bar's part-time seasonal staff was cut by about 75 percent from the typical 25 or 30 servers, bartenders, kitchen help and others he hires on Wild game nights.

"We are just excited we have hockey back and that we can bring back our staff. They have lost hours and tips," Reid said "When you hitch your star to the NHL and they don't have an event, it can be very difficult."

mkaszuba @startribune.com • 651-222-1673 jadams@startribune.com • 952-746-3283#

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