Whether we hockey fans like it or not, our support of the NHL is why the league believes it can survive and thrive after another lockout.
NHL fans are understandably upset they’re facing yet another lockout only seven years after the end of one which killed an entire season.
When league commissioner Gary Bettman recently claimed the league survived and thrived following that lockout because “we have the greatest fans in the world”, he meant it as a compliment.
For fans weary of CBA news and bitter over the prospect of another league shutdown, it was taken as an insult, proof positive Bettman and the team owners were taking their support for granted.
There’s a good deal of truth behind that conclusion. The league is betting the fans come flocking back following this lockout, just like they did last time around.
That’s what prompted ESPN’s Darren Rovell and Forbes.com’s Michael Ozanian to pen columns highlighting that fact, as well as The Globe & Mail’s Roy MacGregor to suggest Canadians are addicted to hockey.
Unfortunately, a number of fans were offended by the suggestion they were somehow responsible for emboldening the league’s lockout position.
The fans’ reaction is understandable. Why should we be blamed for another lockout because we dared to love the NHL product so much?
Suggesting fans are to blame for the lockout, or addicted to the NHL, with stark words and headlines is akin to waving a red flag at an angry bull.
While the statements may be harsh, they are, however, accurate in pointing out the real reason why the NHL owners, led by Bettman and his negotiators, are willing to risk another lockout. They see little reason to believe we won’t come running back when it is over, even if it kills another season.
That’s not to suggest fans should be chastised or scolded for loving the NHL product. If the NHL is an addiction, it is one much safer than most.
Still, Rovell, Ozanian and McGregor, as much as we don’t like to hear it, were merely telling an uncomfortable truth. If not for the unwavering support of its fans, the NHL owners wouldn’t risk going through its third lockout in eighteen years.
MacGregor is also correct in calling for some perspective here. Nobody’s lives are being destroyed. I daresay 98 percent of hockey fans won’t have their lives adversely affected by another lockout. They’ll still have their jobs or their schools, the sun will still rise in the east and set in the west, and to paraphrase Billy Joel, life will go on, no matter who is wrong or right.
I believe what makes this so upsetting for hockey fans is the last lockout is still a recent raw memory, and they were assured the CBA which emerged from it would make the game more affordable, allowing all teams to be competitive and profitable.
I covered the last lockout on this site and for Foxsports.com, and while fans weren’t happy with the labor squabble at the time, they believed it was worthwhile, wooed by the league’s promise of 30 competitive, financially healthy teams, and a more affordable product.
This time, however, it’s apparent even to casual NHL fans the league’s promises came to naught. Fans are also struck by the owners claiming they’re unhappy with their current system – the one they shut down an entire season to achieve, and which many exploited for their own gain – and are willing to shut the league down again to squeeze the players for more.
While fans do tend to sympathize more with the players this time around, they don’t understand why the players simply won’t accept a 50-50 salary split and then try to negotiate off of that, especially when they’re willing to come down from the 57 percent of HRR they currently receive to 54 percent. Surely, they should be able to come down a little more and meet the league halfway. After all, they’ll still be earning millions.
I believe that’s led to weariness and bitterness among hockey fans toward this NHL labor squabble which wasn’t there in previous lockouts.
I can’t help but think the league is playing with fire this time around.
Sure, there were dire predictions of doom for the NHL last time, and you could tell the league took it seriously, going out of its way to woo back disgruntled fans with flowery praise, a brief lowering of ticket prices, rule changes to improve the game’s pace, even painting “Thank You, Fans” on the ice in all its arenas in the first season back from the last lockout.
Throughout the previous lockout, the league also had an “NHL CBA News” section, where it constantly justified its rationale behind the lockout, but doing so in terms to flatter the fans. Commissioner Bettman made the rounds of NHL cities, presenting his case and speaking directly with fans, giving them the impression that, as painful as that lockout was, it was necessary to save the product.
This time around, however, there’s been little sign from the league acknowledging the difficulty it is putting its fans through. Just terse words from the commissioner that the owners believe they’re paying the players too much, allusions to the costs for jet fuel and massage therapists as part of the problem, and suggesting a rising Canadian dollar, a lucrative new contract with NBC Sports, and the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg were unforeseen consequences making the current CBA unworkable for the owners.
The players, meanwhile, risk losing whatever support they currently enjoy from fans with their “put yourself in our shoes” message, and heading overseas to Europe to play for less money during the lockout.
As much as Donald Fehr, current NHLPA director and former head of the Major League Baseball players union, likes to point out the eighteen years of labor peace in MLB, what he doesn’t tell you is that came at a price for baseball.
MLB fans were weary of two decades of seemingly endless labor squabbles, including strikes, lockouts, lawsuits and collusion amongst MLB owners. A season-ending players strike in 1994 was the last straw for many. Attendance suffered following that strike, and those fans who returned weren’t shy about voicing their displeasure at the players and the owners.
That forced both sides to realize another labor struggle could further damage their product. The two sides have since avoided further work stoppages, and baseball is thriving as a result.
Clearly, the NHL hasn’t reached that stage yet. Fans flocked back following the 10-day players strike of 1992, the half-season lockout of 1994-95, and the nuclear winter of 2004-05.
If this lockout is a short one, over by Christmas at the latest, it might not have a noticeable impact upon the fan base over the course of the next CBA.
But if it results in another lost season, marking the second time in eight years there won’t be a Stanley Cup playoff, it could prove the tipping point for a fan base growing more disgusted with the NHL’s labor follies.
Perhaps alienating a significant part of its fan base might force the NHL and NHLPA to be more amenable toward working out their future labor differences, but it shouldn’t have to come to that.