AP Sports Writer
Sitting in a hockey locker room, Steve Chase became the latest die-hard fan fed up with the NHL lockout.
Living in Los Angeles, Chase believed the league had squandered all the goodwill built in the area after the Kings won the Stanley Cup. His weekly pickup games with friends became his only taste of the sport he loved because of the ongoing labor strife that has dragged on for months.
So he took a poll of his buddies, then took a pledge:
"We're not coming back."
Not for good. Just not after the lockout is settled, not for a while.
Chase started the grass roots "Just Drop It" campaign that encourages fans to boycott one NHL game for every game canceled after Dec. 21st. No tickets, no TV, no merchandise -- not a minute or a penny spent on the league, punishment for what he believed are continued abuses of loyalty on their fan base.
He made a video and started a Facebook page, urging fans to click the "like" button and join the cause. More than 11,000 angry fans have joined since the weekend, a puck drop in the circle compared to the millions of fans who attend games, but the latest small sign fans won't again be easily won back.
"People are trying to crush the NHL," Chase said. "That's not our goal. Our goal is just to get hockey back. Hopefully somebody, somewhere cares about this and decides, 'Guys, we've got to get back and talk.' The fans are right.
"They're fighting over our money."
The days of letter writing and 30-second phone calls to sports radio stations have ballooned to steady streams of hashtags, Facebook posts and homemade videos from fans who just want to come in from the cold of this labor battle and watch their slap shots and saves. They are exasperated over a work stoppage with no end in sight and little regard for the fans.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby understood why fans are upset over the third lockout in Commissioner Gary Bettman's 20-year tenure.
"I don't blame anyone for being frustrated with this process," Crosby said. "Everyone's got to be frustrated with the way this has gone. It's pretty easy for everyone involved to feel that way."
Kind of like they sing in a song about union executive director Donald Fehr's old sport, some fans vow it's one, two, three lockouts and they're out.
"I wouldn't blame them if they did that by any stretch," Penguins forward Craig Adams said, "but I can't predict that."
It's actually pretty easy to call this shot.
For all the angry tweets, texts, threats and organized campaigns, fans will still pick up the remote and print out tickets as soon as the strife ends.
They always do. In every sport. Remember 1994? After the World Series was wiped out, baseball loyalists vowed never to return to the old ball game. Fueled by super-sized sluggers and retro ballparks, attendance topped 60 million in 1996, 70 million in 1998 and soared to 79,503,175 in 2007.
The NHL, of course, can't match those numbers. But the story arc is still the same. The NHL drew 20,854,169 fans when the sport returned in 2005-06 -- 497,970 more than the total in 2003-04, the season before the lockout.
The NHL saw an attendance uptick each of the next three seasons and totaled a record 21,468,121 fans in 2011-12.
Fans are filling stadiums from A (Air Canada) to X (Xcel Energy) and most geographic points in between. If there are fans still holding out over the lost season and refusing to step foot inside an NHL arena, they're at least throwing on their oversized Winter Classic sweaters and watching from home.
The 2004 Stanley Cup finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames averaged 3.286 million viewers on ABC/ESPN, the Nielsen company said. Those numbers actually dipped in 2006 and 2007 when Carolina and Anaheim, two nontraditional hockey markets, won the Cup.
When hockey-mad cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago all reached the finals, though, the ratings soared. The Blackhawks-Flyers series in 2010 on NBC/Versus averaged 5.167 million viewers, the highest for the finals since 2002, Nielsen said.
The NHL is coming off its sixth consecutive year of record revenue, with a projection of more than $3.2 billion by the end of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, the league said.
Don't forget, the NHL has a $2 billion, 10-year deal with NBC Sports Group through the 2020-21 season.