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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Canadian Fans Aren’t So Quick to Forgive

Hockey is more than Canada’s national pastime--it’s part of the country’s culture. And during the lockout, criticism from points north of the border centered on the sacrilege of having the fate of the NHL rest in the hands of American lawyers who didn’t appreciate the game’s tradition or its Canadian heritage.

Canada has its game back. But confounding predictions that the dispute would be forgotten there and would hurt teams in cities where hockey isn’t deeply rooted, American fans came back to NHL arenas in greater numbers than Canadian fans during the league’s first weekend.

After seeing empty seats in Edmonton and Winnipeg last week, Mighty Duck Coach Ron Wilson believes Canadians haven’t gotten over losing their game for half a season.

“It affected them more. You burnt their church down,” Wilson said.

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In Anaheim and other American cities, the flocks have returned.

The Ducks, who are beginning their second season, drew a sellout crowd of 17,174 to The Pond of Anaheim on Monday for their 1995 home debut, a 5-4 victory over the Edmonton Oilers. The Ducks, who filled 98.9% of the seats at the Pond last season and recorded 27 sellouts, are close to selling out remaining home games.

By contrast, the Vancouver Canucks, who represented the Western Conference in the 1994 Stanley Cup finals, played before 4,000 empty seats at the Pacific Coliseum in their first two games, attracting crowds of 12,038 and 12,558.

The Oilers, winners of five Stanley Cups from 1984-90, were 1,500 short of selling out the Northlands Coliseum last Friday. The Tampa Bay Lightning started its third season with crowds of 26,387 Friday and 22,952 Sunday at the Thunderdome in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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The Dallas Stars, who are in their second season in Texas, expect a capacity crowd at Reunion Arena next Monday, but the Jets didn’t fill the Winnipeg Arena last week. They had 13,382 fans at their opener and only 9,725 for their second game, against the Ducks last Saturday. The Quebec Nordiques are not sure of selling out Le Colisee tonight, although Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Ottawa will have full houses.

Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, teams played to 90% capacity. Attendance for the first 21 games was 335,446, an average of 15,973. Last year, when the NHL set a record for first-week attendance, the full week average was 15,896.

There are several theories to explain the healthy attendance figures. One is that hockey has found a home in warm-weather cities, and the success of the Ducks, Lighting and Florida Panthers outweighs weak receptions in Canada.

“I think in a lot of the newer cities, hockey is perceived as a novelty item and interest is very high, but people who are converted to our game love it sincerely,” Duck forward Stu Grimson said. “I never had a question about (teams thriving in) California or Florida. The Canadian cities have a tradition and you have to have a winner to do well over the long haul.”

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Duck defenseman Randy Ladouceur, who was born in Canada, admitted he was surprised at the early gate returns in his native land. “You’d think a team like Vancouver, with the amount of success they had going to the Stanley Cup finals, you’d figure a team like that would have no problem getting a sold-out crowd at their opener,” he said. “Maybe (fans) have been hurt a little bit more than anybody else and they’re going to hold that grudge a little longer.”

Which brings us back to Wilson’s contention that the lockout disillusioned Canadians more deeply than Americans.

“They’re bitter, more than anything else,” said Tony Tavares, the Ducks’ president. “When you are the national pastime and you take it away for a period of time, people start finding alternatives. It’s a little bit that, and a little bit, ‘In your face.’ I thought in our marketplace, where we aren’t steeped in hockey tradition like some of the Canadian markets, our fans are going to be loyal and less punitive in their actions.”

The fans were generally loyal Monday, although a few booed Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner when he welcomed them back. Otherwise, they happily quacked away on their free duck calls and roared their approval of the elaborate pregame show.

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