By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - With a new labor deal in place the National Hockey League (NHL) was back in business on Monday, but some teams may find it easier to hoist a Stanley Cup than win back disillusioned fans.
Having dragged fatigued fans through a fourth work stoppage in 20 years, most recently a 113-day lockout that ended with a tentative deal on Sunday, NHL officials and players are unsure what reception awaits them when the season begins next week.
"The face painters are going to come back, they have never really abandoned the sport," David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute, told Reuters. "What the NHL has lost is the ability to cultivate casual fans.
"The last couple of years, with the momentum the league had built, I thought they really began to cultivate those casual fans and I think the work to be done is to win these fans back, who for the last many months the NHL has been out of sight, out of mind."
Fans of the NHL are often described as North America's most avid but the league has regularly put that loyalty to the test in recent years as it sought concessions from players while working out new collective bargaining agreements.
As a result, the NHL has lost 2,365 games to labor disputes over the last two decades, more than North America's three other major sports leagues combined.
The hardcore fans have grown numb to the lockout noise, ready to return whenever a deal is struck, but it is the casual observers who have already moved on that the league must now work to entice back.
"Hockey fans are used to it, they've lived through it many times before," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and head of Pilson Communications.
"It may take a year or two but in terms of recapturing the momentum they had a year ago that's going to happen pretty quickly ... I'm pretty confident the NHL is going to be fine."
The NHL will undertake some serious fence-mending across several fronts over the course of the season, which is expected to be a 48-game campaign, down from the usual 82 games, starting on January 19.
Much of the NHL's focus will be on reassuring high-paying sponsors, business and television partners that the league's labor woes are a thing of the past.
After nearly four months of ugly negotiations filled with rancor and mistrust, owners and players must also find a way to put their differences aside and work to repair the damage to the game's public image.
A recent study done by the LEVEL 5 Strategy Group for Hockey Canada described the public reaction and damage to the NHL by the lockout as the worst backlash seen since BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
"The lockout has done damage to the NHL's public image," said Queen's University marketing professor Ken Wong.
"The NHL has to take the fans' backlash seriously and not just to recapture the heart of fans - sponsors will be looking very carefully when it comes time to renew their licenses."
At the top of every team's to-do list is finding ways to kiss and make up with jilted fans.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, who will open the season as the 8-1 favorites to win the Stanley Cup, were among the first teams to launch a charm offensive, issuing a groveling apology for the lockout on the team's website.
Players and coaches have promised to deliver an exciting product on the ice with the compact schedule making every game compelling entertainment.
But according to Bill Sutton, a former-vice president of marketing for the National Basketball Association, it is going to take more than words to win back the casual fans.
When the NBA lockout ended last year, the league went into to a full court press to win back fans, holding open scrimmages, free practices and offering plenty of interaction with players.
The NHL must do the same, says Sutton.
"I don't think there will be a backlash but I do think there will be some apathy," Sutton told Reuters. "I think some people are already over it, they've moved on, spent their money, spent their time, made their commitments.
"They've lost momentum, I hope the NHL has been working on a reinstatement process and a marketing plan for all their teams showing what they should do and what the national platform is going to be what the make goods are going to be.
"It's going to take some time to win them back and some significant gestures, it's a courtship now."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)