In the wee hours of Jan. 6, as obsessed NHL fans frantically refreshed Twitter, waiting for news in the wee hours of the morning, a moment of self-criticism must have occurred. Such a fan might have thought, “Am I being used?”
Now, with the lockout over, fans have moved from armchair lawyers and labour relations experts to armchair GMs and coaches. But amidst fan’s joy and relief of the lockout ending, many are still sour with the way the league and the players handled the lockout.
Some well-intentioned fans have suggested measures such as boycotts of home openers or long booing periods during said games. In anticipation of this, many NHL teams have responded with offers such as heavily discounted concessions and team merchandise and a variety of contests — but, of course, only for the first few games of the season.
The reality is that any type of boycott or demonstration is short-sighted. The only real way to stop the same manipulation from happening in the future is for fans to maintain the same suspicion and criticism acquired during this lockout. Owners must also support recent apologies with substantive actions. In the interim, the only real option is to let the players play and leave the business terminology in the boardroom.
At the most basic level, opening-week protests do not address the systemic problems that caused the lockout in the first place.
The first days of training camp were marked by fans across the league responding enthusiastically, with thousands showing up to practices across the league. For instance, the Buffalo Sabres drew over 10,000 fans to an inter-squad scrimmage. If the fans are still mad, they have an odd way of showing it.
As seemingly gauche as the NHL’s “Hockey is Back” slogan is, it does have a certain undeniable accuracy to it. As much as fans might have pretended the AHL or CHL were adequate substitutes, most true fans felt that hockey returned with the NHL.
This lockout may have done enough damage to the NHL’s brand and revenue streams to make any further work stoppages unthinkable. It is difficult to imagine the league getting the same luck they did coming out of the 2005 lockout, when new superstars and fan-friendly rule changes meant the league unexpectedly found itself with over $3 billion in revenue they did not know how to split eight years later.
The NHL’s teams have toyed with a number of different strategies for winning back fan support, including discounting tickets, merchandise and food. Ultimately, the NHL has decided to offer their online GameCentre Live — a site that offers games from every marketplace for one price — at a discounted rate of $50. Hardly moving mountains.
With regards to future stoppages, perhaps league revenue will not be as vast and therefore easier to negotiate. After this CBA has expired, it is also possible that the antagonistic dynamic between owners and players may have past.
In the meantime, there is little the average fan can do. There is a clear line between casual fans and the ones who are eagerly watching training camps. All fans should remember that ugliness and greed are a part of professional sports. However, as far as sending an actual message, casual fans’ apathy will always be more dangerous than a weekend or so of dirty looks.
This is not to say that fans will welcome back the nhl with open arms again. In an ideal world, the Calgary Flames would be an example of this. Flames owner Murray Edwards was reportedly one of the biggest hawks on the owners side during negotiations. Yet even before the lockout, Edwards’s team was not exactly providing a product worth waiting three extra months for. The Flames have been a precisely mediocre team for the past several seasons without a clear plan to stop their decline. Often, the Flames have seemed far too satisfied with their outside chance of sneaking into the playoffs.
Soon enough, Edwards is going to be asking Calgary taxpayers to help fund a replacement for the Saddledome. The fans that wish to express their displeasure with the lockout ought to keep Edwards’s lockout manipulation in mind when this happens.
NHL fans everywhere can only brace themselves for when the GMs find ways to exploit and circumvent the new CBA, just as they did the previous two lockouts, both of which were supposed to be resounding owner victories.
Whether fans would actually be able to effect change with any sort of fan protest is unclear. It is probably better if fans can simply embrace the game’s real return and leave the past in the past. Fans should learn to forgive but not forget.