The anticipated backlash and fan resistance to hockey's return has been muffled at best in this market.
Shawn Larson vowed to cancel his Wild season tickets and turn his back on the NHL -- at least for a certain period of time -- as his way of protesting the 113-day lockout. Larson loves hockey and has held season tickets since 2001, but the stalemate drove him to the point of declaring enough's enough.
And then the puck dropped on opening night Saturday.
"I told myself it wouldn't happen," Larson said. "But sure enough it did."
As frustrated as he felt, Larson couldn't stomach the thought of missing the debut of Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and the new-look Wild so he settled into his usual seats at Xcel Energy Center. He loved being back and watching hockey again.
"I was planning on protesting for a while," he said. "It didn't last very long."
He's not alone. The anticipated backlash and fan resistance to hockey's return has been muffled at best in this market. The Wild opened its doors and welcomed the sixth-largest crowd in its history for the season opener Saturday. An overflow crowd of 18,000-plus returned for Sunday's 1-0 victory against the Dallas Stars.
So much for fans thumbing their nose at the league and its players for treating them like inconsequential spectators in a high-stakes poker game. Any residual anger seems to have been washed away in the current of excitement over this team's star power and potential.
"I'm still enthusiastic about the Wild," Tom Graves said, "but it's still something that's sticking in my head."
Graves was one of several long-time season ticket holders I interviewed in early December to gauge their frustration and reluctance to return once the lockout ended. Graves was on the fence at the time and debating whether to cancel his tickets, which he has held since the team's inception. Ultimately, he compromised and scaled back to partial season tickets. His lingering frustration didn't prevent him from attending the opener, but he expected to see more pushback from fans.
"It was amazing to be there on opening night," he said. "It was literally like nothing ever happened."
We probably shouldn't be too surprised. Any lockout or work stoppage stirs emotions, and the default setting for many fans is to threaten abandonment. You don't care about what we think? Fine, we'll just find something else to do with our time and money.
Some fans stick with their personal boycott. But many more return once the games begin again because deep down, they love the sport or their team. It's simply too difficult to turn away for good.
"I'm still a little bitter," Larson said. "My protest now is that I won't spend money on concessions for a while. It's my quiet protest that's probably not going to hurt them too bad. I can at least say I held strong somewhere."
He laughed at that statement. He wanted so badly to stay away, to let Wild management and players feel his frustration and understand that damage was done. But the pull was too strong and sucked him back in.
Larson expected to see pockets of empty seats the first night. Maybe a few fans holding signs about greed or perhaps some heckling.
"It was 100 percent opposite," he said.
The Wild's cause is helped by a few critical components. The excitement over the Parise-Suter signings this summer returned and the curiosity factor provided a boost at the box office. Hockey matters in this market and hockey fans generally are a loyal bunch so getting them re-engaged didn't require as much effort as some other places. The Wild also has an exciting and talented team after some lean years.
Plus, a 48-game season likely is more palatable to some families and is definitely preferable to zero games in a lost season.
"I think people were honestly just relieved to see some hockey," fan Josh Petzel said. "The thought of having 48 games in 99 days and every game meaning so much, I think that sort of helped dissipate some of that anxiety."
The Wild must continue to make amends and show fans that the team's remorse is authentic. Not everyone is on board again. Cameron Maxwell counts himself in that group. A season-ticket holder since the first season, Maxwell wrote a letter to this newspaper during the lockout in which he declared that he was "walking away from the NHL. I will never watch another game or spend another dollar with the NHL."
His anger has subsided to the point that he watched Sunday's game on TV after talking to his friends about the atmosphere inside the arena the previous night.
"I'm getting more in tune to going back but still upset about it," he said.
Maxwell figures he will probably return to his seats in a few weeks. It just seems inevitable.
"It's a sport I love," he said. "How do you just walk away from it?"
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org
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