January 14, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Gregg Krupa

Fans turn out as Red Wings hit the ice for first time this season

Plymouth— The game returned to the people Sunday.

No more lawyers from Manhattan. No more staged appearances before microphones by negotiators. No more talk of hockey-related revenues and memoranda of understanding. Just the slap of sticks against ice and puck, the ping of shots rifled off posts, the persistent scraping of blades on ice and a couple thousand people looking on, without paying admission, at the excitement of it all.

Make no mistake, not even the band of incompetents in charge now can kill the National Hockey League. Too many folks love the daylights out of it.

"It's great, I feel like we're just getting going again," Jack Pierson, 16, of Livonia said as the Red Wings skated at their first practice session Sunday at Compuware Arena. "I miss the NHL. I missed hockey a lot. And I feel like this is just the start of it."

The people were back in fairly significant numbers. There were about 2,000 in Plymouth for the Wings. The Blues said they drew about 5,000 in St. Louis.

Season-ticket holders around the NHL are canceling in only tiny numbers, according to reports. In fact, the Blackhawks say they gained 250 during the lockout.

It was a happy, festive crowd in Plymouth. Interviews with about three dozen spectators revealed they intend to stick with the game they love.

But they clearly are not pleased with some of the folks running the NHL.

It is much less about anger than profound disappointment, the sort of regretful disillusionment that is not easily dispatched.

Youth movement

To know why, all one needs to consider is an 8-year-old son's plaintive question to his dad, in the early days of October.

"It was hard to explain to him why they weren't playing," said Chris Pinta of Livonia, sitting next to 8-year-old center and wing for the Livonia Mite Blackhawks, his son Brennen Pinta.

"I'm glad it's over. We're glad it's over."

What was perhaps most noticeable about the crowd was how young it was. There were far more children under the age of 10 than at any NHL game.

The NHL office in Manhattan and the owners could begin to heal wounds by charting a course to help young families, both now and in the future, with the high cost of watching the games. Whether the price of admission or subscriptions to NHL Center Ice, the league and the teams have been taking a lot from the fans for a lot of years.

And the fans were not represented at the bargaining table, when everyone else was divvying up their money.

The last lockout was supposed to yield cheaper tickets. It did not.

No similar promises were made, this time.

The Red Wings have announced fees are waived on tickets sold for a specific time frame. While that is a nice break, the Wings have done so before, and no fans interviewed Sunday said they perceived that as a discounted ticket, only a waived fee.

When burnishing a tarnished brand such considerations are essential.

Some other franchises are providing free food, hot dogs, pizza, chips, popcorn and soda pop during practices. Others will discount the purchase of licensed goods by 20-30 percent.

The Stars and Penguins will offer game tickets at a discount.

"It's not cheap," Chris Pinta said. "For four of us to go and sit up in the top level at The Joe, you have to pump out a chunk of change.

"It would be nice to get a few games at least at reduced rates, because I think they owe the fans some things, and I know a lot of businesses have suffered down in Detroit, as well."

Too expensive

The apology Mike and Marian Ilitch issued last week was perceived as genuine, many fans said. In fact, the fans were nearly unanimous in absolving the Ilitches from any blame for the lockout. The owners clearly remain highly popular, and fans are grateful.

"It's great that it's free and we appreciate the fact that they let us into it for free," said Laura Gordon of Plymouth, who packed six children, four her own and two friends', into a vehicle early and got them to the arena long before the scheduled start of practice.

But Gordon said it is unlikely she could take the same crew to a Red Wings game.

"We don't get down there too often because of the money and other commitments. We'd love to, though, if we had the opportunity."

James Grassmyer, 25, of Canton said the offer of $9 tickets to some selected home games last season should be expanded.

"We could help each other, if they do $9 tickets the day of the game," Grassmyer said. "You can buy cheap tickets and they still fill the seats."

To an extent clearer every day, with plans for a $650 million development downtown for which they will seek considerable public financing, the Ilitches are threading a needle. They must account for the fans' displeasure, the necessity of drawing big crowds despite the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom and the need for cash to finance their plans. And the people say they believe they have something more coming.

"They need to do something to keep us happy," said Frank Ilardi, 57, of Canton. "At least Ilitch didn't charge us five bucks to watch this practice.

"A free practice is real nice."

gkrupa@detroitnews.com

Henrik Zetterberg, soon to be named Red Wings captain, walks past happy fans as the Red Wings take the ice. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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