Buffalo Sabres left wing Marcus Foligno meets with fans before Sunday's home game against the Philadelphia Flyers. / Kevin Hoffman, USA TODAY Sports
The NHL and its fans have kissed and made up.
Eight days after the end of an ugly, 119-day lockout, the league's once-angry fans are embracing the NHL as if all is forgiven. The first 17 home openers were sellouts, and the crowd size was up in nine markets.
"We appreciate and are gratified by the response we have received from our fans," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday. "The attendance numbers and TV ratings once again demonstrate the passion of NHL fans. It is a testament to the players and the teams and the ways we all have tried to reach out."
NBC announced Sunday that its coverage of Saturday's opening day received a 2.0 overnight rating, the highest overnight rating for regular-season coverage, excluding the Winter Classic, the NHL has seen in 11 years. The numbers were up 67% from the 2011-12 regular-season average.
The Pittsburgh area posted a 19.4 local rating for the NBC coverage, a regular-season best. Philadelphia (7.8) and Chicago (6.6) also had their best all-time ratings on NBC.
"Penguins fans are phenomenal," Penguins CEO David Morehouse said. "Just when we think they can't amaze us any more, they do. That includes more than 18,000 for a free scrimmage on Wednesday night. We are so fortunate to have this kind of fan support. Pittsburgh will always be a football town but I think it's becoming obvious that it's also a hockey town."
Bettman made a public apology to fans after a new collective bargaining agreement was reached, and teams have tried to reach out to fans with special promotions. Sunday in Buffalo, players were in the lobby to greet fans entering the arena.
Though the general fan reaction has been positive, there has been minor fan backlash, Abeed Bawa said he was taking the year off from attending NHL games.
"As a displaced Thrashers fan, I jumped aboard the Nashville Predators," Bawa said. "They did a wonderful job reaching out to Thrashers fans, and they are very welcoming and passionate. We were (done wrong) by the NHL with the way they did absolutely nothing to keep the Thrashers from relocating. (With the) second lockout in eight years, the NHL has quickly reduced itself to a garage league.
"The most I will do is watch games on TV if they are broadcast, but I have canceled my subscription to NHL GameCenter. The NHL does not deserve any money from me this year."
San Jose Sharks fan Janice Dressler said she has not forgiven Bettman. "And I'm not sure I ever will," she added.
But she says she is thrilled to have the NHL back. "I love Hockey Night in Canada and always watch that," Dressler said. "So I'll be glad to have that every Saturday night."
Philadelphia Flyers fan Steve Bogucki never doubted that regular fans would return.
"We are a different breed," he said. "I don't think the NHL has fans and 'hard-core' fans. All of its fans are hard-core fans."
Players are saying it might take them a couple of weeks to regain sharpness. There has been more offense than had been expected. In 12 of the first 19 games, the winning team had four or more goals. In the first 19 games, there were as many three-point performances (14) as there were in 42 last season.
Said Bettman, "This should be an incredibly competitive season in which every game matters."
Copyright 2015 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Fans flock to the NHL in sold-out openers