Above the 49: NHL clubs must continue to give back to fans

NHL clubs in Canada have garnered plenty of positive headlines for their "welcome back" initiatives, but if they truly want to show their appreciation to their fans, they need to ensure their efforts aren't just gimmicks.

Since the NHL formally ended its lockout over two weeks ago, fans in Canadian NHL markets have been treated to plethora of promotions ranging from free game ticket giveaways - in the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs, their home opener was entirely free for fans - to increased access to team players through open invitations to practices and, in some cases, even free beer.

Teams also have increased the grandness of their giveaways compared to years past, everything ranging from game-worn jerseys to season tickets as well as offering significant discounts on concessions and merchandise for fans attending the first batch of games to start the season.

The gestures have certainly not gone unnoticed and have seemed to quell any ill-will that may have arisen among their fan base as a result of the work stoppage. But it also begs the question of why teams, particularly those north of the border, don't make these kinds of gestures on a more frequent basis.

That's not to say clubs should get into the habit of doling out millions of dollars worth of merchandise or tickets or booze each game, but the fact that teams have been able to go above and beyond what they normally do on a year-to- year basis shows that there is room for growth on the fan relations side.

Certainly when it comes to providing fans with access to their hockey heroes, teams have hopefully learned a lesson or two from this recent experience.

One common criticism of Canadian NHL clubs is that they aren't always the most eager when it comes to making their players assessable to fans.

It's not surprising considering the rock star status most NHL players enjoy in Canada, but if there's one thing the lockout has shown is that fans will respect the players' boundaries even during informal sessions as evidenced by the crowds that took in various player skates during the work stoppage.

Some players, such as Ryan Kesler and several of his Canucks teammates in Vancouver, took it even one step further, staging impromptu events in public locations and inviting fans to attend via social media.

You'd have to think that all the NHL teams' extra effort in connecting the fans to the players in the days coming out of the lockout has played a part in the early - in some cases record-breaking - success that the league has seen both at the gate and in terms of television ratings.

As far as discounts and giveaways are concerned, while it certainly isn't feasible for teams to routinely give away concession food items or make their merchandise available at bargain bin prices, having certain nights during the season when there are still noteworthy or significant initiatives would go a long way toward maintaining the positive relationships they developed, and to keep fans excited about games even during long, drawn-out seasons.

In those cases, those special promotions don't need to be publicized in advance and would, in fact, be better served to be left a surprise for the ticket holders when they arrive at the arena.

NHL clubs have to be given credit for all the work they've done in trying to restore fan faith in the sport and league, and for rewarding their fans for their patience through the lockout and their continued support for a sport that has now taken the game away from their fans three times in the last 18 years.

It's critical for them to remember that rewarding their fans and showing their appreciation, especially for fans in Canada who tend to shell out more money on average for hockey compared to their American counterparts, should be an ongoing process and not something that ends when this shortened season does.