The return of Hockey Bay, USA

Hockey has returned to the Tampa Bay area to open arms. Many predicted that fans would shy away from a sport that had little to no television coverage, with the exception of the Lightning, prior to its cancellation. Now that it has returned after a yearlong hiatus, the St. Pete Times Forum is packed game after game with fans who want to see the local team defend Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The Lightning have played for either sold-out or near-sellout crowds for its first two games of the season thanks to a successful public relations campaign that thanked the fans and promoted the Lightning’s defense of the cup. At center ice there are two large blue signs thanking fans for returning. The banners of the 2003-04 season have been raised, and with them, the ramifications of last year’s lockout seem to have disappeared.

Prior to the work stoppage, the players cried foul that a salary cap would ruin the sport. Many players felt a set salary cap would affect their livelihood. Despite their protests, owners stood firm and ended the 2004-2005 season.

What many failed to realize before this work stoppage was that the true fans would return no matter what.

Just because there were no television ratings does not mean the sport was unsuccessful.

According to the NHL attendance Web site, since 1965 overall attendance for NHL games has risen every year. People who enjoy hockey enjoy watching hockey live, not on television. It is because of this reason that the NHL will survive even in small markets such as Atlanta and Columbus.

The NHL has followed the mold of the NFL by instituting a salary cap. A salary cap allows all teams to be competitive and creates parity in the league. The small-market teams then have a chance to compete for the Cup because large-market teams such as Detroit aren’t dwarfing them.

So far this season, fans can already tell the difference. The Florida Panthers have made few playoff appearances with the exception of their Stanley Cup run from a few years ago but have put a very competitive team on the ice. The Lightning managed to retain nearly all their players while losing only one of the key components of their championship run. The salary cap has not ruined hockey; it has only improved it. Hockey Bay USA is back in full swing, and the thought of the fans abandoning the sport has long since faded.