Minnesota fans can rejoice in NHL’s return

The NHL lockout is finally over, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time for Minnesota sports fans.

The news broke early Sunday morning that the NHL and the players’ association reached a tentative agreement to bring an end to the league’s 113-day lockout. Hockey fans across the country celebrated the return of their sport — especially those in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

The 24 hours before the end of the NHL lockout were a rough period for Minnesota sports fans. It was announced late Saturday afternoon that Timberwolves forward Kevin Love refractured a finger on his right hand, the same injury that kept him out for the first nine games of the season. There is no timetable set for Love’s return, but it’s likely he’ll be out for a while. He missed five weeks when he fractured two fingers in his right hand in October.

Just hours after Love’s latest injury became public, Minnesota fans had to watch their beloved Vikings lose a playoff game 24-10 to their hated rivals, the Green Bay Packers. To make matters worse, quarterback Christian Ponder — who has received plenty of heat this season but played well in the regular-season finale against the Packers — was inactive for the game because of an elbow injury. That meant backup Joe Webb was thrust into the starting role, and he struggled.

With the Vikings’ season over and the Wolves struggling to stay healthy, Minnesotans had reason for excitement on Sunday with the return of the NHL — even if it is for a shortened season.

Perhaps no hockey market was more negatively impacted by the lockout than Minnesota. This offseason, the Wild went out and signed two of the most coveted free agents in forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter. In early July, the two signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts to play for Minnesota. Their additions had fans buzzing about the Wild’s potential this season.

At the time, the thought of such a lengthy lockout was not on the minds of Wild fans who simply were excited by their team’s moves. Parise’s No. 11 jersey and Suter’s No. 20 sweater flew off the shelves, and fans wore them proudly around town after the big offseason acquisitions.

After a hot start last season, the Wild faded and finished 35-36-11 to miss out on the playoffs. Now that Parise and Suter are in the fold, there’s reason for optimism.

But thanks to the lockout, Wild fans have had to wait to see the new duo in action. The only chance to watch them on the ice together was at a charity game in October.

“They’re excited. It seems like everyone’s excited for the team and for the season to start,” Parise said after that game on Oct. 28. “You can tell just through tonight, all the Wild jerseys, it seems like people are pretty pumped for the team right now.”

Some of that excitement may have worn off, however, as the lockout continued to drag on. Disgruntled fans certainly grew frustrated with the NHL and the players as the two sides argued on how to share the millions of dollars in league revenue. Some fans have pledged to boycott the league as a result.

But for those truly passionate about the NHL and the Wild, Sunday is a happy day. Likewise, local businesses surely are rejoicing at Sunday’s news. For bars and restaurants in downtown St. Paul — especially those near Xcel Energy Center — a good portion of their revenue comes from those who attend Wild games. I recently spoke with one restaurant owner who told me he had to lay off three-fourths of his staff because of the lockout. He estimated that 50 percent of his gross revenue comes from business done as a result of Wild games.

There are so many others who rely on the NHL as a source of income besides the players and owners. From the vendors who sell food to the ushers who take tickets to the people who operate parking lots, there have been hundreds impacted by the lockout.

Finally, the NHL is back in business. That’s reason to celebrate in the State of Hockey.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.