It's cold outside. The sun sets so early that afternoons are swallowed up by evenings. The holiday decorations are coming down, and there's no reason to replace them with Terrible Towels or giant plastic Steelers in the front yard. The region is downright dreary.
We need some hockey.
The National Hockey League typically provides a respite from the winter blahs, especially in Pittsburgh where the Penguins have grown in popularity to the point where the last 254 home games have been sellouts. Restaurants and businesses near the team's new home at Consol Energy Center get a boost from ticket holders, and supermarkets and other shops sell a lot more party trays and black-and-gold gear to fans who watch the games from home.
It's easy to dismiss the contract dispute between the NHL and its Players' Association as a squabble among millionaire owners and highly compensated athletes, but this prolonged standoff -- the lockout began Sept. 15 -- is affecting more than the teams and the fans. It's also hurting the ushers, food vendors, janitors and parking garage attendants who would be working at Consol and the waiters, waitresses and other employees of establishments all over Western Pennsylvania that fill up with fans on game days.
If negotiators work out a deal by Jan. 11, it would allow for a much-reduced season of 42 games per team. If they don't, there's virtually no hope of salvaging what should have been the 2012-13 season. The leaders in the league must have short memories. In 2004, the owners won a salary cap and pay cuts they'd been seeking, but they lost a whole season. In some markets, it took a long time to rebuild support.
In Pittsburgh, fans are loyal and the Penguins probably aren't worried about whether they'll return. Here's hoping they're rewarded with at least an abbreviated hockey season to brighten the dark days of winter.