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Perspective

The NHL lockout’s lasting damage

Maybe fans will return, maybe they won’t. Either way, hockey hurt its future.

Michael Byers

“IT’S A GO!!” TWEETED MONTREAL CANADIENS defenseman Josh Gorges to his more than 23,000 followers. No, he wasn’t referring to the end of the NHL lockout on January 12, but rather to a pickup game he’d organized with his spare time during it. On December 26, the 103d day of the lockout, dozens of skaters responded, showing up at a neighborhood rink in Montreal. Getting to share the ice with a pro player was a dream for fans, while Gorges’s work making the game happen was a sign of his respect for them. Now if only the rest of the National Hockey League acted the same way.

Since hockey has returned, there’s been lots of talk about putting hard feelings aside and doing right by fans, starting with a full-page apology the NHL took out in major newspapers (including this one) a couple of weeks ago. But the kinds of perks being offered here and elsewhere — free concessions, open practices, pro shop discounts — strike me as short-term, pandering solutions to a bigger, long-term problem.

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This time around, people noticed that the NHL and players’ union wasted time dragging their feet, seeming to believe they could count on fans to return whenever they wrapped up negotiations. Emphasis on “whenever.”

But fans will take only so much abuse. “I think it’s pretty insulting for the fans that [the league is] in a lockout based on how to spend our money,” one told reporters at Gorges’s pickup game. A couple of weeks earlier, a survey of Canadians — the most hockey mad population on earth — found that 58 percent “did not care” whether players and owners reached an agreement. If those are the numbers up north, imagine what they are in Phoenix or Dallas — two cities that struggled to fill arenas last year. Imagine what they’re like in Boston, which isn’t the hockey town it once was.

In the 1970s, the Bruins sat at the top of the local sports hierarchy. Visions of Bobby Orr and the Stanley Cup sparked children’s imaginations and prompted rink building on an unprecedented scale. But then the 1980s and Larry Bird brought basketball to the fore, followed by the historic success of the Red Sox and the Patriots. Meanwhile, the Bruins receded into a 39-year championship drought.

Even in cities with winning teams — even here, after the Bruins won another Stanley Cup in 2011 — the NHL is fighting for fans. The lockout made that fight much tougher.

Still, as Globe hockey columnist Kevin Paul Dupont wrote, NHL fans “have always acted as the enablers in the lockout dynamic.” After the league returned from the canceled 2004-05 season, attendance increased for 25 of 30 teams, including the Bruins. The NHL set records for total attendance (20,854,169) and average game attendance (16,955). Those numbers are very good — by hockey standards.

In 2005, after a 310-day work stoppage, the longest for any pro sport, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman talked about a league-player partnership that would “take our great game to spectacular heights.” This time, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the NHL Board of Governors, voiced optimism, predicting “growth” and an “extremely bright” future for the sport.

Seriously? Even news of the lockout’s resolution was overshadowed by college football and the start of the NFL playoffs.

The diehard hockey fans seem to be returning, but there wasn’t a huge risk of losing them anyway. The real challenge will be finding ways to expand hockey’s audience — hard to do when your sport has a habit of disappearing.

The cost of the lockout won’t become clear this season, with the NHL on its best behavior, but it will in time: Pro hockey has cemented its standing as a second-tier sport. A niche enterprise. As far as most Americans are concerned, it might as well be soccer.

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BY THE NUMBERS

Up to $1 million

Estimated revenue businesses lost on each canceled Bruins game

Shira Springer is a Globe sports writer. E-mail her at springer@globe.com.

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