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July 14, 2005 - Flyers are concerned about fans

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Flyers are concerned about fans
By WAYNE FISH

phillyBurbs.com

There really isn't time for the Flyers to warm up to the just completed, bound-to-be-controversial collective bargaining agreement.

They've got to hurry back and make sure the fans warm up to the NHL's almost forgotten game of hockey.

When word came down Wednesday that an agreement in principle had been reached, veterans such as Keith Primeau, John LeClair and Eric Desjardins breathed a sigh of relief.

True, by the players' association's refusal to accept a salary cap for the better part of a year, a season of paychecks was lost.

But the feeling going into the summer was: Better do something now and cut further losses.

Not only to their own bank accounts but to the financial stability of the game.

Now that the money issues have been decided, the biggest matter at hand is selling the sport to a public that many believe will have tepid interest at best.

Getting the 2005-06 campaign started on time had to be the prime directive and the players at least can be comforted by the fact things will be getting back to normal.

"That's the words I've been using for everybody [who's asking] - a sense of relief,'' Primeau said. "It's now finally finished and we're going to get the opportunity to go out and play and do what we love to do. That's the most important thing.''

LeClair, one of the most popular players in team history during his prime years in the late 1990s, is still held in high regard by most people connected to the game for the grit he has shown by bouncing back from injury.

The left winger will be returning from another back operation and has a year left on his $9 million contract (which could be slashed by 24 percent under the new CBA). Right now, he's just focusing on what's best for his team and the game.

"It's hard to say what [the fans' reception] will be,'' LeClair said. "At first, it's going to be easy for a fan to say, 'I'm not coming back, with football around and stuff like that in the fall.'

"But I think as the year goes along and the excitement of hockey grows ... I'm hoping by the end of the year, hockey is right back where it was.''

Except for a handful of games at the end of the 2003-04 regular season, Desjardins hasn't played hockey for 18 months. He suffered a broken arm in January, '04 and needed some time to recover.

Just not this much.

Like many players past 35, Desjardins wonders what the future holds. From initial reports, it appears that team salaries will be capped at $39 million.

So the days of $5-million contracts for very good but not Hall of Fame defensemen are over.

Right now, Desjardins just wants to get on with the game and give the fans the best product possible.

"Hopefully this long break will have given me time to recover from all those [past] injuries,'' he explained. "Maybe it's going to be a good thing for me.

"It's been a long time, though. You go through so many mood changes. I was happy to get a break but now it's been so long, you almost hope for anything to bring us back. . .

"I know it's hard, but we want to start the game as if nothing happened. You obviously want to have time to prepare the fans, get them excited again and make sure there are people in the stands right from the start.''

If the players foster any bitterness over the perception they didn't come out of this with anything close to a draw, they pretty much have to bite their lip.

Right now, it's all about "re-selling'' the game.

"I think the fan backlash will be with those who don't show up to the games,'' Primeau said. "And I'm sure some won't. It might take a while for them to come back. But I think for many of the fans, they will be excited that we are back on the ice and playing again.

"The fans I've spoken to, they wanted a resolution and they wanted the game back. They said they missed it badly.''

The lockout has been an absolute blackout for Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. He lives, eats and breathes hockey. But he's encouraged that the game seems poised to get back on track with progressive rule changes and aggressive marketing.

"The feedback I get is that they [the fans] really miss hockey,'' Hitchcock said Wednesday morning. "I think the thing that surprised me more than anything was that how many people watched the game on television and missed it on their weekly television programming.

"We have to get the live audience back and enthusiastic. And the focus for me is recreating the same chemistry [the Flyers] finished with.''