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NHL lockout: How bad is perception of NHL? It's BP oil spill bad

By Brian Stubits | CBSSports.com

NHLLockoutThis time a year ago, everything seemed pretty good in the NHL, at least from a business standpoint. The league was gaining in popularity, the NHL was in the midst of a record-breaking year in terms of revenue and a CBA was still in place. The owners might not have loved the system, but all in all life wasn't too bad.

Things have changed since then. A lot.

One of the big questions that has lingered over the lockout and has grown more ominous like an approaching storm cloud with the longer this has gone on is how the fans will respond. What kind of damage is the NHL doing to its brand and can it recover this time like it did after the 2004-05 season was canceled?

If you shook a Magic-8 Ball it would probably tell you "Outlook not so good." Wait, that wasn't the Magic-8 Ball, that came from a survey from the Level5 Strategy Group.

The group conducted its own, independent survey on how fans are reacting to the NHL lockout and, well, the picture they painted to Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail was anything but pretty.

"We found damage at levels we have not seen," Level5 CEO David Kincaid said. "It's quite alarming, really.

"If anyone thinks that the lockout can end and everyone will come back to Happy Valley, it ain't going to happen."

Just to illustrate how alarming this is, they compared it to BP after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A disastrous map would be the one Level5 created following the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It was the worst the company had seen -- until it got around to the NHL this month.

Oh boy. Yea, I'd say that's pretty bad.

If that doesn't scare you enough, what we haven't even told you yet is that this is a survey that was taken only among Canadians. As we all know by looking at many measure -- including TV ratings and attendance numbers -- people North of the Border love their hockey and the NHL. If Canadians are upset, you know it's pretty bad.

You sort through the numbers and it's all scary. Hardcore fans feel cheated, the neutral fans are bored by it all and the non-passionate fans are disgusted. The brand of the NHL has already taken a huge hit and it's not getting any better. Now imagine if the season actually is canceled.

Then again, maybe you shouldn't imagine that. It would be absolutely crippling for hockey if it were to happen, and it's a belief in that that continues to make me believe there is no way a season isn't played, even if it's just 48 games. The damage is overwhelming already, it would be catastrophic at that point.

Worst of all, the league has nobody to blame (well, you could argue they can blame the players, but that's neither here or there right now) but itself. The league made a few really bad mistakes early in this lockout which it is still reeling from.

The first was a really low initial CBA proposal from the league. Some rationalized it away at the time as being the beginning of bargaining; you start low and work your way up. It made the owners look bad and reinforced to the players right away that they were going to need to settle in for the long haul.

But really what we're getting at here was the error in judgment the league showed by believing it could withstand this lockout. Gary Bettman's now infamous words early in this lockout, "We recovered last time because we have the greatest fans in the world," angered a lot of people. The underlying implication seemed to be that they would all come back again, that the fans were being taken for granted.

At some point, though, people will begin to say enough is enough. It seems like this lockout could be that straw that breaks a lot of fans' backs.

To be clear, we know that deep down a lot of these fans are aware they are lying to themselves, they will be back when the puck drops for the first time again. But we're not going to be silly enough to believe that all the way, either. There are fans who are upset and who won't think twice in saying good bye to the league -- they've probably already had their Sitting Shiva moment.

When the NHL makes it not-so triumphant return, it's going to have its work cut out for it in trying to win back fans, if they can even be won back at all.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @StubitsCBS on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

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