The NHL has its work cut out for it. While waiting for the players to ratify the six-year deal that has ended the lockout, the league has to make sure the fans come back, too.

“Hockey in Chicago is almost a forgotten sport,” Tony Gray, a bartender in downtown Chicago said Wednesday. “I think it’s going to take a lot to get that fan base back.”

The deal between the league and the union still needs to be ratified next week. The NHL is the first North American sports league to lose a season because of a labor dispute. And that came just 10 years after the 1994-95 season was cut nearly in half for the same reason.

“I think it’s just two groups of very greedy people,” said Gregg Katsoudas, 29, of Chicago. “They need to lower ticket prices, anything to get the families out there and people going back to the games.”

The Blackhawks – one of the six original NHL teams – will have to help their fans get over the hard feelings some of them have nursed since the team has been off the ice at the United Center.

“There’s still some die-hard fans, I’d definitely go to a game,” said Dustin Hammond, 24, of Chicago. “But I do wish they would have played (last season) just because they liked the game.”

Devils fan Ed Bogaert of Mountain Lakes, N.J., has decided to renew his season tickets for 2005-06, but he knows others might not be as quick to return.

“People have found other things to do,” Bogaert said. “Their money is being used elsewhere. It’s going to take a heck of a movement by the NHL and players to bring fans back inside the door.”

Bogaert, 67, an executive board member of the official New Jersey Devils fan club, said he knew of “a lot of people” who said they would not renew their season tickets but instead would watch the games at home on television.

An ardent fan who traveled to Albany, N.Y., with his wife several times this winter to watch minor league games, Bogaert assigned blame to owners and players equally.

“My animosity is toward both sides,” he said. “When the contract expired, they should have been talking right then and there to settle it before Sept. 15. They should have been able to reach an agreement before the season was lost.”

Andrew Simone, an employee at a Denver sporting goods store, thinks the fans were forgotten.

“Both sides were wrong, and they didn’t have the goodwill built up that baseball has, and from what I understand, they’re not going to be lowering ticket prices,” he said. “If someone gives me free tickets I’ll go, but I’m not paying.”

Even in stalwart hockey cities like Philadelphia, not all the fans were clamoring for the sport’s return.

“I’ve got to admit, I didn’t miss it,” said Joe Hartman, a Philadelphia insurance adjuster and former collegiate hockey player.

AP-ES-07-14-05 0405EDT

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