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Article updated: 1/23/2013 7:43 PM

It looks like lockout actually helped NHL

By Mike Imrem

As I started to write this late Wednesday afternoon, the dog started barking in the living room.

He has been told not to disturb me when I'm creating literature, but something aroused him.

So I go up to the living room and see him peering out the window at kids playing 4-on-4 hockey on the ice in the park across from our house.

The game is back -- in my neighborhood, at the United Center and around the country!

Wasn't supposed to be this way, was it? The latest NHL lockout was supposed to turn off fans for good this time.

They were supposed to move on to other sports, other activities. This league, always on a precarious perch in the United States, had shot itself in the skate.

Then the labor dispute was settled, the NHL season began, and enthusiasm for hockey seems to have increased rather than decreased.

The Blackhawks attracted a capacity crowd to their home opener, which wasn't surprising for Hawkey Town.

What might be considered surprising was the headline on the email that arrived Wednesday afternoon: "Comcast SportsNet delivers its highest Chicago Blackhawks regular-season game rating to date."

Those watching at home, many of them casual hockey fans at best, were the ones expected to forget about this game. No, though, they also welcomed back the NHL.

Again, though, this is Chicago, a hockey hotbed, more so than ever since the Hawks won the Stanley Cup three years ago.

But check attendance figures from home openers over the weekend and you'll see that there were very few empty seats around the league.

As usual, we in the media were wrong in projecting gloom and doom for the NHL. We missed that the lockout was a positive for the league as it tries to gain ground on the NFL, MLB and NBA.

In the long term the NHL's new collective-bargaining agreement ensures uninterrupted hockey for at least eight seasons.

For a league that has endured three lengthy work stoppages since the mid-1990s -- including one that squandered an entire season -- that's as important an outcome as could be hoped for.

The NHL needed this lockout to establish an economic structure in which all 30 teams have a chance to at least not lose money. The owners knew it, and the players probably did.

Maybe fans knew it, too, judging by how they have embraced the league's return without many hard feelings.

Meanwhile, a short-term benefit is at play around the league, too.

The way the NHL was forced to schedule this regular season is the way it should schedule every regular season: 48 games instead of 82, nearly half the calendar time and playoffs following the opening faceoff sooner than later.

In Chicago the Hawks' and Bulls' seasons don't really start until the Bears are finished playing anyway and settle on a head coach.

Seriously, hardly anything matters in the NHL besides opening night, the outdoor game on New Year's Day and the playoffs.

The middle event was canceled but two out of three ain't bad.

A good guess is that regular-season tickets will be in demand because fans that normally would have paid for autumn games have that money left for late-season games.

The NHL returned with a bang and promises to keep banging bodies right up until a team skates around with the Stanley Cup overhead.

Our dog might even watch the playoffs this spring.

mimrem@dailyherald.com

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