Recently, Canadian fans have been getting the chance to experience NHL caliber play during the lockout. Whether its the Tournée des Joueurs (The Player's Tour) in Quebec or Bieksa's Buddies in Vancouver, fans in Canada are being treated to watching some of the greatest hockey players, and Paul Bissonnette, at relatively low prices. (I kid Paul, big fan, have one of your shirts)
This is a great idea, and doing it in Canada makes a lot of sense. Canada has rabid hockey fans, and a lot of players are simply playing in their hometowns. Its great that the players are giving something back to the fans and the land that they call home during the lockout. What we are asking the players, (although lets be honest, it's unlikely any players will ever read this), is whether these events should be limited to the areas north of the border. Sure Canada deserves to have games played there but are they the ones who need to have them played there?
Hockey does very well in the traditional market places, with some exceptions (at least financially...competitively, maybe not so much, eh Maple Leafs?). The places where hockey doesn't do quite as well are the nontraditional markets where teams are constantly struggling to gain the attention of the casual sports fan and the local talk radio.
The struggle for these nontraditional markets is that they know they need to win to draw in new fans. Each year they are successful they know they are hopeful that they will start the next season with new fans that stick around from last year's run. The lockout pretty much destroys all that. Every day hockey isn't played, nontraditional market teams lose fans because for these fans it can be a case of "out of sight, out of mind." For the good of the game, we need to keep hockey alive in these markets.
If I can step outside my own fandom for a second, the Los Angeles Kings gained a lot of support from casual sports fans when they won the Stanley Cup last season. The longer this lockout lasts the less likely it is that this new group of fans will come back. Although a Stanley Cup hangover is probably going to minimize this for the Kings. But its just the Kings who are riding last year's success, the Coyotes, Sharks, Predators, and Panthers all were in the playoffs, and the Stars, Ducks, Hurricanes and Lightning weren't terrible towards the end. I'm sure all of these teams would have come into this season with a few more fans then when they started last year were it not for the lockout.
What I am proposing is that the NHL players take their series of exhibition games on the road, bringing what is being done in Canada across the United States and emphasizing some of the nontraditional markets along the way. This will not only maintain interest in the casual fan in these markets but also act as a reward for fans in these areas who have to put up with more than their fair share of hockey heartbreak and drama. And the first stop should be in Atlanta, Georgia to give those fans that had hockey wrenched away so quickly a chance to get to that one last game. Unfortunately I have no way of making this happen on any level but hopefully someone somewhere realizes that this is what needs to be done, for the good of the sport.