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Ducks Fans Mighty Angry at Hockey Season in Limbo : Sports: Some say NHL risks losing next generation of rooters, like the ones in O.C. warming up to new team.


Kent and Rhonda Soper of Anaheim could serve as poster fans for the "new" National Hockey League.

Kent, 33, has been following the sport seriously since 1988, when he and a friend bought ticket packages for Wayne Gretzky's first season with the Los Angeles Kings. His wife, Rhonda, 36, began going to games occasionally several years ago and has since become a disciple.

"I've created a monster," Kent says.

Kent took a part-time job as an usher at The Pond of Anaheim just to be part of the hockey scene; Rhonda regularly uses the couple's single season ticket.

But a week from Sunday, when the Ducks are supposed to make their home season debut against the Calgary Flames, the Sopers will be at a loss. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Friday that team owners have decided to delay the start of the season--which was to begin today with games that included the Mighty Ducks' opener at Dallas--at least until Oct. 15 while stalemated collective bargaining talks with the NHL Players Assn. continue.

"I'm not happy about it at all," said Kent, whose regular job is in shipping at a screen print ink company.

"I was watching the press conference today, and it was really irking me. If this keeps up, they're going to kill hockey."

The Sopers, while likely to be ready to return to The Pond when the players do, nonetheless represent perhaps the biggest problem the NHL faces in a dispute that could cancel the entire season: the threat of losing a new generation of fans that was starting to catapult professional hockey toward the same level of interest as pro football, baseball and basketball in the United States.

"I'm very upset about all this," said Rhonda Soper, a pharmacy technician. "It seems that if the players are willing to play, why don't they just do it?"

Rhonda Soper is a double loser, also being a fan of baseball and particularly the Dodgers; that season has been lost completely because of a labor dispute. But Soper, who says she and Kent have taken to hockey at all levels--they also attend college, roller and minor league games--is now particularly frustrated.

"Everybody is stubborn, and they just want to prove a point," she said.

"I've met Gary Bettman, and I thought he was doing a good job, but now it seems as if he has a vendetta or something."

Vicki Caruso, a Mighty Ducks season ticket-holder from Huntington Beach, was so displeased with the prospect of missing even one game that she faxed a letter to Bettman on Thursday. She began following the sport during the Kings' run to the Stanley Cup finals two seasons ago, "and since then, I've been nonstop. This year, I'm like a walking hockey almanac. People walk away from me in conversations."

"My main concern is that they're losing the momentum they had going from last year's Stanley Cup," said Caruso, 27, referring to the closely watched 1994 playoffs that ended with the New York Rangers winning their first Cup since 1940. "They're mostly hurting themselves. This lockout will hurt the league now more than ever."

Yorba Linda resident Randy Smith, 47, agrees. He says he was never a hockey fan until the Mighty Ducks arrived. Now, he's a member of their booster club.

"I'm disappointed, especially coming on the heels of the baseball fiasco," said Smith, a government consultant and lobbyist. "I don't think professional sports teams are considering the fans enough. How many times in other labor disputes have you seen the management side willing to close its doors and leave customers hanging to have a more aggressive negotiating posture? This is a little silly; worse, it is inconsiderate of the fans who have paid money to see the games. They should be able to negotiate aggressively without calling off games.

"I'm sitting on a lot of Angels season tickets, so right now I don't have a good attitude about sports teams. This hockey thing, it's minor at the moment, but if they start canceling games, I might cancel my season tickets."

Scott Rowland, 29, is a wildlife biologist for Irvine-based Chambers Group and part-owner of Mighty Ducks season tickets. He is a little bit more of a longtime fan, having begun following the Kings in the late 1970s, but he, too, said the NHL was missing a big chance.

"The NHL has a very good opportunity to make a dent in the (sports) population in North America with no baseball going on," he said. "For the average fan looking for a sport to go to, those who had not seen hockey could experience the NHL without the distraction of other sports besides football.

"It's basically a corporate decision, and the Ducks are part of the whole NHL. They may have a voice in the whole thing, but their voice would pale in the face of the old NHL guard."

Meanwhile, as fans such as Smith warn that they're getting sick of the whole thing and might soon walk away, others such as Kent Soper say they'll be back.

"If it's just two weeks," Soper said, "it might actually be better that they do this now and get it done right rather than starting and then stopping again."

And if the dispute winds up canceling the whole season? Would he return next year? Soper paused for just a second.

"For hockey? I would."

Times staff writer Mike Terry contributed to this report.

NHL OPENER ON ICE: Season openers delayed to Oct. 15. Contract talks urged. C1

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