By Spike Eskin

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The NHL is back, and not a moment too soon. It hasn’t been a stellar six months as far as sports go in Philadelphia.

The damage that the work stoppage did to the sport in regard to its popularity, at the present moment, is difficult to gauge. Even in hindsight, the damage might be difficult to gauge.

The common perception is that die-hard hockey fans will return. They’ll talk a big game, Even though they are hurt the most, and complain the loudest, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which hockey is being played and they’re not watching. Where it’s said the league will take a hit, is with casual fans.

Logic tells me that hockey will be fine, and the effect of the lockout on casual fans will actually a positive one.

The casual fan will likely miss the sport the least, especially early in the season. When a die-hard hockey fan doesn’t have hockey in his life, there’s a hole. When a casual fan doesn’t have hockey in his life, he goes to the movies. He watched another sport. Maybe he even reads a book. Because of that, they’ll take less personal offense to the work stoppage.

The 48 (or 50) game season is more attractive to the casual fan. It’s a better experience. More importance placed on each game, and less down time between them. It might be harder on players, and be cause for sloppy play, but casual fans hardly notice.

Many thought the NBA would suffer the similar consequence of a loss of casual in their lockout shortened season in 2011-’12, but they didn’t. In fact, the league had record ratings last year, including an opening day on Christmas that felt like an event, instead of a ho-hum day in late October. The league is having some problems selling tickets, but that has less to do with the lockout, and more to do with expensive tickets and an increasingly attractive at-home experience watching sports.

Major League Baseball did have problems after the strike in 1994, but it’s important to note that they lost the second half of the season, not the far less important first part. No playoffs, no World Series, the time where casual fans are most involved.

It’s hard to say just how popular hockey can be in the United States. But as unfortunate and silly as the lockout was, it doesn’t seem like it could stand in the way of reaching its potential.

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