The official language of the new collective bargaining agreement has finally been agreed upon.  The lockout is over, the season is saved.  But has critical damage already been done?

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Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.

But when thrice I am fooled, on whom do I place the shame?

More appropriately, at what point do I never allow myself to be fooled again?

Such is the question NHL fans have been forced to ask.  At what point do we stop letting Gary Bettman and his cohorts do this to us?  At what point, does their indifference to the fan, force us to become indifferent to their league?

The ink is not yet dry on this year's collective bargaining agreement, and speculation is already rampant that the NHL will exercise the deal's year eight opt-out, and take us, for yet another time, to the precipice of a work stoppage.

So I'll ask again: When is enough, enough?  When does the biting frustration left in a lockout's wake, exponentially worse with each installment, overtake all we love about the game and the league?  When is it just not worth it anymore?

For me?  Never.  But I'm a diehard.  Whatever my feelings for the NHL management - whatever the level of resentment, whatever my contempt, whatever my anger - I know I won't turn away from the game.  Surely there are plenty like me, but just as surely there are exponentially more who don't color themselves quite as masochistic as we.

So with camps finaly ready to open, the question looms - as it does after every lockout - will the fans come back?

...The other fans, the ones with the good sense to care about the disrespect that has been heaped upon their head.

There's good reason to think the answer is no.  So few returned when hockey resumed following the last lockout, that 2004-2005 lost season cost the league its top-four status and its television presence - at least on channels that large sections of the cable consuming public knew they had.

This time around, though not the death blow that would have been another forfeited season, I fear this lockout has incurred its own healthy cost.

I fear that the casual fan with whom the NHL had been making strides will not come back. I fear that the momentum that had been slowly gathering will stall, if not reverse itself entirely.  And I fear that even a few of my ilk, the diehards, will flee the game - finally fed up after a third work stoppage in less than twenty years.

I fear that, given this latest lockout, the last eight years have been nothing more than one step forward, three steps back.