Sam Donnellon: No bullyaching: Flyers' faithful unlikely to boo their team's return to ice

Claude Giroux (top) and Scott Hartnell (left), two Flyers who are mighty happy to be returning. Said Giroux: "I was born to play hockey. And I couldn't do that, at least in the NHL. It was a pretty tough couple of months."
Claude Giroux (top) and Scott Hartnell (left), two Flyers who are mighty happy to be returning. Said Giroux: "I was born to play hockey. And I couldn't do that, at least in the NHL. It was a pretty tough couple of months."
Posted: January 13, 2013

Claude Giroux was more than a little concerned when Scott Hartnell suggested they finish off their first day on ice together in months by taking in a Sixers game. Giroux knew how annoyed he was about the NHL lockout, how it denied what he sees as his destiny in life.

"I was born to play hockey," he was saying at his locker the other day. "And I couldn't do that, at least in the NHL. It was a pretty tough couple of months."

He also knew that if it bothered him that much, it bothered fans, too. He was one of them the last time the NHL locked out its players in 2004-05, and while he doesn't remember much of the details, he remembered being a little ticked then, too.

So as he took his courtside seat with Hartnell and Matt Read for Tuesday night's game between the Sixers and the Nets, he did so warily.

"I didn't know what to expect, really," said Giroux, who most observers think is the Flyers' captain-in-waiting. "I asked Hartsy if we were going to get booed. And he said, 'Aw, no, man. Flyers fans are good fans.' "

Sixers fans are, too, although, as Hartnell pointed out, "They put us up on the Jumbotron and we got the loudest cheer of the night, because they lost by 20 points."

Said Giroux: "Really, the entire game, fans were yelling positive things to us. It was good. All of a sudden, I got goose bumps and put a little smile on my face. And I can't wait to play now."

To be fair, some fans out there are ticked, people who have vowed not to attend a game this season, or forever; people who claim they have canceled their cable packages, or will boycott every one of their televised games. But while it was a measurable and profit-sucking protest after strikes in baseball, and lockouts in football and basketball, the overriding sentiment here seems to be euphoria, not anger.

And not only here.

"Montreal, Toronto - fans are just waiting for it," Luke Schenn, one of the new Flyers, was saying. "That's really all that's ever talked about in Canada."

Schenn spent the 113-day lockout training in Kelowna, British Columbia, where he played his junior hockey.

Vancouver, 4 hours away by car, is the closest NHL city. And yet, he said, "Everywhere you go, you walk around, people are asking for hockey."

"I'm sure there's a lot of anger," he said. "But I think, as soon as the guys get out there on the ice and they have their favorite teams out there and their favorite players, I think they'll be excited to watch again. I'm not saying fans will forget easily, but hockey fans are pretty good and pretty loyal. I haven't run into too many people saying, 'I'm done watching hockey.' "

Why? The answer may lie in a word: Lockout.

"It's not the same as strike," Hartnell said. "We said right from the get-go we wanted to play."

A few lockers away, Max Talbot said: "We were willing to play under the terms of the expired CBA. So it was never our choice or decision to not play. When you're locked out, it's because owners decided to do it, not us."

That might sound like semantics to some people. After all, players could have played right away if they agreed to the league's initial proposal of cutting back their share of hockey-related revenue from 57 percent to 43 percent. They could have played had they acquiesced to the less offensive proposals NHL owners offered in the ensuing months.

"They thought once they got at our paychecks that we'd cave," Hartnell said. "But the biggest saving grace for us was our leader, Don Fehr [head of the NHL Players' Association]. He did an incredible job mapping out a game plan. I'm sure he had an idea what was going to happen. He's been doing it for so long."

So long that just the mention of his name can make baseball fans break out in hives. Fehr was the point man in several baseball work stoppages, including the one that killed a World Series and nearly killed the sport.

In fact, a great example of how hockey fans have treated this differently than baseball fans is in how much more anger they have for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman than they do for Fehr.

That's not to say players will completely skate on this one. There is sure to be some push-back, most notably in non-traditional markets such as Phoenix, Tampa and Nashville.

There may be some lingering bitterness, manifested as impatience - especially should the Flyers get off to a slow start.

"We'll see," Talbot said. "They have the right to be. It's not a fun circumstance. But the only thing we can do as players is show up and give a good show. Play with our hearts. And play hard."


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: philly.com/

SamDonnellon

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