Two days before the start of a lockout-shortened season, the Toronto Maple Leafs held an open practice Thursday as a way to say thank you to hockey fans who endured the months-long labour impasse.

As people entered the venue at about 9:30 a.m., members of the Team Up Foundation, the self-described philanthropic arm of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, handed out free scarves bearing the Maple Leafs' logo. Free popcorn, coffee and hot chocolate were also given to fans.

Before a number of freebies were announced later in the day, some fans complained that the Maple Leafs hadn't done enough to give back after the lockout, compared with the incentives offered by other teams.

A handful of NHL-starved fans showed up more than three hours before the practice was scheduled to begin.

One fan named Chris said he was hoping the Maple Leafs offer additional incentives.

“Maybe some free things, maybe some discounts on jerseys and tickets,” Chris told CP24 reporter Cam Woolley.

Another fan, whose face was painted blue and white, said he is in a forgiving mood after the lockout’s end.

“With the lockout being so long NHL fans are kind of, like, in the mix of changing sports, but you have got to stay true to what you believe in and I believe in hockey,” the fan said.

As people huddled before the doors opened, talk eventually turned to the Maple Leafs’ chances and whether they will have the same level of support after the bitter labour dispute turned some people away.

Danny, one of the fans who arrived early for the practice, said the support will be there if the team gets off to a hot start.

“The Leafs need to start off well,” Danny said. “Get some wins right away in the season and then the fans will come back and watch the games.”

Most NHL teams are offering some kind of incentive to their fans after the dispute between the league and its players was resolved earlier this month, shortening the season to 48 games instead of the usual 82.

In an attempt to win over disgruntled fans, some teams are offering ticket and merchandise deals, while others are offering vouchers for free popcorn, hot dogs or soft drinks at games.

On Thursday afternoon, the Maple Leafs announced they are giving away 1,000 free tickets leading up to their home opener on Monday night, and that the club's 15,000 season ticket holders would get free admission to that game.

In addition to merchandise giveaways, the club is hosting a road game viewing party Feb. 23, and events at local skating rinks.

By comparison, the Ottawa Senators are offering free admission for children aged 14 and under with the purchase of an adult ticket for four of the first 10 home games. Other Senators promotions include free parking, $1 popcorn or soft drinks, and student ticket discounts.

When the NHL season begins Saturday, the Maple Leafs will be in Montreal to face the Canadiens, who are giving back to their fans by allowing the fans to watch the teams' morning skates. Before the game, the Habs are holding an outdoor party featuring a free concert by Simple Plan.

South of the border, where pundits believe the fans may be slow to return post-lockout, some teams are offering even bigger incentives.

In sun-drenched Florida, where fans are harder to come by than they are in Canada, the Tampa Bay Lightning are offering a limited number of season ticket packages for $200, less than the price of a single lower-bowl ticket to a Maple Leafs game. The Florida Panthers, meanwhile, are selling season tickets for as cheap as $7 per seat, along with free parking and a jersey.

In Nashville, fans who buy a ticket to the Predators’ first home game can attend the second home game for free.

The Maple Leafs play their first home game on Monday, when they host the Buffalo Sabres.

Because it is a shortened season, no pre-season games are being played.

League publishes letter of apology to fans

As teams try to make amends with their fans, so, too, is the NHL itself.

A week after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made a public apology to fans, the league published a letter of apology in a number of newspapers Thursday.

In the full-page ad, the league thanked fans for their patience and promised to do everything it can to make the season worth the wait.

“We are committed to earning back your trust and support the same way it’s earned on the ice: with hard work and unwavering dedication,” the ad says. “Your cheers drive us forward, and we’re committed to making you proud to be a fan – by delivering a game with the action, the skill and the intensity you deserve.”

With files from CP24 reporter Cam Woolley

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