Despite a prolonged lockout, hockey fans have returned to NHL arenas this season in gorwing numbers. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Despite a prolonged lockout, hockey fans have returned to NHL arenas this season in growing numbers. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Given the dismay expressed by NHL fans as the lockout dragged on and eventually ate half the regular season, it’s perhaps surprising how quickly those fans have returned to the arenas and apparently put aside that dismay.

“It was a lose-lose situation,” said Ray Alcala of Lockport, Ill. “It wasn’t good for the owners, it wasn’t good for the players, it wasn’t good for the sport. But, you know, we’re back playing hockey now, so let’s beat the Redwings and let’s get on with it.”

The enthusiasm of Alcala isn’t difficult to understand. He backs the aforementioned Blackhawks. According to ESPN, the United Center is somehow being filled to close to 110 percent capacity. But are those following teams that are bobbing around at about .500 likely to feel the same way as Blackhawks fans, post-lockout? Chris Potavan, who roots for the Tampa Bay Lightning, invokes an appropriate simile to explain why he’s buying tickets.

It’s just like taking the gloves off and going for five minutes and doing it over again. That’s it. It was a round of fighting. It’s over. They got their penalties. We’re back to playing hockey.
– Chris Potavan, Tampa Bay Lightning fan

“Happy times,” Potavan said. “We’re playing, absolutely. When you’re a hockey player and a hockey fan, as long as we’re playing, no matter what happened. It’s just like taking the gloves off and going for five minutes and doing it over again. That’s it. It was a round of fighting. It’s over. They got their penalties. We’re back to playing hockey.”

So the “five minutes for fighting” explanation works for Potavan. After an early February game between Tampa Bay and the New York Rangers at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Gail Augaitis, also a Lightning fan, explained her attendance differently.

“It was kind of like the family’s back together, like a huge family reunion,” Augaitis said. “You know, that’s kind of the way it felt. Everybody was excited. Everything that happened, people were on their feet. It was amazing.”

Average attendance at Lightning games is up a tad over last season, and overall league attendance is up over two percent, despite the lockout, which ended less than two months ago. But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman probably shouldn’t get smug. According to anecdotal evidence provided by William Couture, a fan of the Detroit Red Wings, the lockout did have a negative impact.

“My brother-in-law, he refuses to go to a stadium,” Couture said. “He’ll watch the games on TV, but he said he’ll refuse to go to the stadium and support the owners.”

And at least one fan of the Boston Bruins, Glenn Alexander, Production Manager at WBUR, shares that sentiment, though he’s realistic about the impact of his personal boycott.

“I’m not so noble to think that my not spending any money is going to change anything,” Alexander said. “I think if enough people did, they would.”

But they won’t. And it’s even money that Alexander won’t, either.

“I may break before the season’s up, ’cause I’m really anxious to go,” he said. “I really like the atmosphere.”

Average attendance at Bruins games is actually down a little, but the only team looking at a precipitous drop is the Dallas Stars, where ticket sales are off 12.5 percent. The Predators and Coyotes are up about four percent, while the Blue Jackets of Columbus, the league’s worst team so far this season, are up nearly eight percent at the box office.

With all those fans either already back in the arenas or on the brink of returning… it kind of makes you wonder how many lockouts the NHL would have to put their fans through in order to lose somebody like Hunter Patterson, a Predators supporter since 2002.

“I’ve dealt with two already, and I’ve come back both times. So it’s hard for me to say how many I could put up with,” Patterson said. “Sadly, I love it too much.”

We can only hope Mr. Bettman and the owners don’t get cocky enough to decide to test Mr. Patterson et al eight years hence.