Players and owners brace for fan backlash as lockout ends

Sun Jan 6, 2013 4:20pm EST

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(Reuters) - National Hockey League owners and players were racing back to work on Sunday after reaching a tentative agreement on a new labor deal but it is uncertain if frustrated fans will be as quick to return to the arenas.

After four work stoppages in 20 years, including the 113-day lockout that ended with a 10-year deal on Sunday, fans appeared mixed on whether to forgive or punish both sides for dragging them through another labor dispute.

But while fans flooded social media networks to express a mixture of joy and anger, NHL players and coaches could not hold back their excitement at returning to the ice after nearly four months of bitter wrangling.

"When you're in it every day you sometimes start taking things for granted and then when it's taken away from you, you really appreciate it," said Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. "I'm so excited to get back."

With talks unraveling and the NHL on the verge of canceling the season, the lockout ended with the help of a U.S. federal mediator who enticed the two parties back to the bargaining table for a final push to make a deal.

As news of an agreement spread, the hundreds of players who chose to ride out the bitter dispute playing in European leagues immediately began making plans to rejoin their NHL clubs for an abbreviated training camp.

The NHL's most popular player, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, chose to wait out the dispute at home and after making regular appearances at bargaining sessions will be one of the first players on the ice when training camps open this week.

"I'm really happy a deal has been reached," Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "It's exciting to know we will be back playing hockey.

"I'm just so happy. So, so happy.

"It was quite a marathon, to say the least. I knew things were going well when I went to bed, but I didn't really know what to expect."

The kind of welcome players receive when the puck finally drops on an abbreviated season is certain to be mixed with some fans calling for boycotts while others line up to buy tickets.

"We appreciate fan support. We hope we can come back and put product on ice worth coming for and that people will be excited to watch," Penguins General Manager Ray Shero told the team's website.

The return of the NHL created an instant buzz across hockey mad Canada, with even Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper greeting the news with relief.

"Glad to see a deal between the #NHL players and the league. Great news for hockey fans and communities across Canada." Harper tweeted.

However, many teams, particularly those based in the United States, are bracing for fan backlash while owners and players begin to calculate the damage done by the lockout.

The dispute, which the league has said was costing it about $18-$20 million a day, began in mid-September when the previous collective bargaining agreement expired with both sides at odds over how to split the NHL's $3.3 billion in revenue.

Some of those hardest hit by the dispute, arena workers and team staff laid off because of the lockout along with businesses such as bars and restaurants that operate on the fringes of the NHL, were celebrating on Sunday as they prepared to return to work as well.

The goal now for both the league and players will be to minimize the damage, extending an olive branch with a promise to reward fans patience by deliver some exciting hockey.

"I think time heals all wounds, obviously we have some work to do but the players in general have a love for this game and are willing to do what they have to bring people back to it," said Montreal Canadiens defenseman Chris Campoli.

"We respect the fans, we know we put them through a lot but at the same time we're ready to do our part."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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