SAN JOSE -- The cry of "Game On!" echoed throughout North America early Sunday morning as the news spread quickly that the bitter NHL lockout finally was over.
But as the San Jose Sharks and the rest of the league prepare to return to the ice, with the first games no later than Jan. 19, the burning question: Will hockey fans come back, too? Can they forgive and forget after a protracted labor dispute that left them feeling likes pawns in a fight between billionaire owners and millionaire players?
"A majority of the fans that I've talked to are looking forward to the season," said Mountain View resident Gail Berg, who is a regular at the Sharks Ice training facility to watch the team practice. "But a few who I know are just disgusted with the way this has played out. But for me there's a feeling of relief that there's finally some resolution."
The phrase "This is Sharks Territory" is more than a marketing slogan in San Jose. The region has become one of the NHL's best nontraditional hockey markets thanks to a perennially strong Team Teal. The Sharks are riding a 110-game sellout streak as 17,562 fans make HP Pavilion one of the league's loudest arenas.
The Sharks also are an economic engine for the downtown core. And that's why, without hockey, local businesses have seen their bottom lines brutally slammed with the force of a Douglas Murray check.
"Not having a Sharks season would have been like not having snow in Tahoe," said Michael Mendez, CEO of The Mmoon restaurant on West Santa Clara Street. "Without the Sharks, there's really no reason to go downtown. So there are no hard feelings in the business community. But it will be interesting to see if there will be a lower attendance at the arena."
Over at the Britannia Arms downtown location, restaurant manager Christian Macauley already was planning for bigger crowds. On nights when the team plays at the Shark Tank, the pub regularly packs in 300 teal-wearing fans before games.
"We're ecstatic," he said with a beaming smile. "We're going to salvage some of the season."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had threatened to cancel the season this week if owners and players couldn't agree on how to divvy up an estimated $3.3 billion in annual revenues. But the two warring sides struck a tentative deal Sunday on a 10-year contract after a 16-hour bargaining session in New York to end the 113-day lockout.
The deal still must be ratified by both the 750-player union and the league's 30-seat board of governors. Many details also are yet to be resolved -- including the creation of a new 48- or 50-game schedule and when teams will report to truncated training camps. But the Sharks could return to work as early as Wednesday.
"We're happy to be back," said Malcolm Bordelon, executive vice president of business operations for Sharks Sports & Entertainment. "We're very mindful of the impact that this has had on our community. We're really appreciative of the fans who have hung in with us. It's regrettable that we've all had to experience this."
Labor disputes are a sad reality of professional sports -- the start to last year's NBA season was delayed by a lockout -- and angry fans usually return after a labor deal is struck.
But this lockout especially has tested fans' patience because it came just eight years after an entire NHL season was lost. Fans once again felt betrayed and were left wondering if a league that seemingly cannot manage its business affairs really deserves their support.
Even though Bordelon said the Sharks saw less than 100 season-ticket holders cancel their packages, players are keenly aware that there is fence-mending to be done.
"You obviously couldn't blame anybody for feeling that way," team star Patrick Marleau said Friday of fans threatening to give up on hockey. "At this point, who knows what people might do? They feel let down. But I hope they give us another chance."
Business takes a hit
Allan Gore said he will. The Fremont resident, who sat at Sharks Ice on Sunday with his wife, Janet, as they watched their son play a game, believes it will be hard for most fans to stay away.
"I think most people want to see it back," said Gore, who wore a Sharks jacket. "So I think fans will come back eventually. I know I'm glad hockey is back."
Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, estimates that restaurants and bars nearest the Shark Tank have seen business dive 30 percent without hockey. Particularly hard hit has been the cluster of eateries and drinking establishments around the intersection of Santa Clara and San Pedro streets, a short walk from the Shark Tank.
Macauley, at Britannia Arms, said the restaurant suffered a 60 to 70 percent downturn during the lockout. That also meant "The Brit" did not hire the 15 or so extra part-time workers it normally adds to handle the big crowds on game days.
"I think I saw maybe three or four Sharks jerseys in here since the lockout began," he said.
But now Mendez, of The Mmoon restaurant, said he hopes the Sharks do more than just win back fans. He wants to see the team finally win the elusive Stanley Cup.
"The best thing now would be for the Sharks to go all the way," he said. "Lord knows they've been knocking on the door the last few seasons. It would be nice to finally see them finish it."
Contact Mark Emmons at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5745.