For the past four months, 30 beloved hockey arenas have been held empty by a full entourage of avaricious executives.
No clean, shining ice. No green, steaming Zambonis. No glass-shaking hip checks. No deafening goal horns. No National Hockey League.
That is, until last Sunday, when Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr changed that—at least in a literal sense.
Thousands of parking employees, broadcasting technicians and concession stand cashiers are back in business.
Tens of thousands of nearby restaurants and bars will be packed with hockey-loving customers a few nights a week.
Hundreds of thousands of 6-year-old kids can watch their idols on television for the first time in almost a year.
Doc Emrick will still make boring games into classics. Sidney Crosby will still get way too much attention. ESPN will still ignore everything that isn't the Stanley Cup itself.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, Sergei Bobrovsky and all, will be last in the league again. The Winnipeg Jets, everyone's new favorite team, will sell out every home game again. The Vancouver Canucks will be called Stanley Cup favorites, again, until they crash in the playoffs, again.
Indeed, there will be players, there will be fans and there will be hockey in those 30 arenas.
But the unrestrained passion and emotion that, in the past, has set hockey apart from the world's four zillion other sports—will that be there?
Only the fans—the 21,470,155 fans who attended a game in 2011-2012—have the power to answer that question.
Many of us have vowed to keep a tighter hold on our checkbooks this spring; after all, when the NHL betrays us, it's only fair to betray them back.
We have fantasies of Fehr and Bettman cringing as they look upon a plethora of Phoenix-like arenas, finally feeling the very pain they inflicted for more than 16 weeks on hockey's dedicated fanbase.
We log onto Twitter hourly to check on Bettman's unlikely but always possible future retirement.
We dream of a day when the greedy, ignorant NHL brass with equally long-winded official titles crash and burn as the lockout backfires in their face.
We vow that not a penny of our hard-earned money will go towards anything as manipulative and malicious as the NHL front offices.
Let's face it, though—hockey is the game we love and adore. If it wasn't, we wouldn't have missed it.
Unfortunately, that fantastical day, when Bettman and Fehr would stand before a near-empty press room and confess their sins regretfully, isn't going to happen.
Yes, the National Hockey League is far from perfect. Yes, the lockout may forever scar a 2012-13 season, cut short 625 games by a pointlessly stupid exercise that took four months to resolve.
For the coming week of legendary rivalries and heart-stopping home openers, however, those flaws can be forgotten and, maybe, even forgiven. Make that number stand at 21,470,156 this year, shortened season or not.
Let's celebrate hockey while we have it.
Mark Jones has been a Bleacher Report featured columnist since 2009, receiving almost a million views on his 450-plus articles.
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