Tomas Maturana/the Gauntlet

How to hit the owners where it hurts

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It is the time of year when hockey fans should be finalizing their NHL fantasy rosters and over-analyzing preseason contests. With another prolonged lockout dragging on, however, fans are more likely spending time contemplating collective bargaining negotiations or watching their hometown heroes online in Czech Extraliga highlights.

The sports industry is fueled by fans — they are the ones dropping hard earned paycheques on authentic jerseys, specialty cable channels and exorbitantly priced tickets. The business lives and dies by the unwavering financial support of fans loyal to their team, which is why fans shouldn’t expect the NHL to pay attention to them until the owners and players are ready to drop the puck again. 

However, there may be a way to send a message to the owners without having to skip a game of your favourite NHL team.

You may recall the triumphant return of hockey action to NHL arenas for the 2005–06 season following the lockout of the previous year. With “Thank You Fans” printed boldly across each blueline, hockey was welcomed back with open arms as fans packed into buildings to watch the highest scoring NHL season yet, and the cash flowed as freely into owners’ pockets as pucks into Jose Theodore’s net. 

The owners have been given no reason to believe things will be any different when they dust off the fan appreciation slogans for October 2013. The fans will come back and the owners know it.

That’s not to say that indignant hockey lovers will take this exploitation of their loyalty sitting down. Many groups have emerged on Facebook in an attempt to unify outraged fans. Some campaigns, such as “NHL Fans Boycott,” threaten to withdraw their support for the league if the season gets underway after the end of the month, and boycott the purchasing of NHL merchandise until commissioner Gary Bettman is fired. Others simply act as a place for fans to vent frustrations through social media. 

There is even a petition available to sign on NHL broadcaster Sportsnet’s website, in which fans can “respectfully ask the NHL and the NHLPA to think of us this season and bring back the game we love.”

Fan petitions may be well intentioned, but likely don’t mean much to the owners. Having already emerged from the cancellation of the 2004–05 season unscathed, there is no petition long enough to convince the two sides to speed up negotiations to get the season underway. Nor will the owners or players react to empty threats to boycott their one-ice product after hockey comes back — they know fans love hockey too much to quit and, even if they do, there’s someone else in line willing to snatch up season tickets at an obscene price.

It seems that fans are destined to lose this fight, like a child caught up in a nasty divorce. How can the fans have any influence on the lockout if they are not willing or able to boycott the sport that they love in order to send a message?

Perhaps there is another option. NHL owners don’t just own hockey teams — they have dozens of other business interests as well. One fan petition called “You Have Two Weeks,” started by Edmontonian TJ Tully, has compiled an extensive list of such companies. He hopes that fans are willing to exchange Molson-Coors product for another beer, skip Little Caesar’s at lunchtime and refuse to shop at American Apparel until the lockout ends. 

If you don’t think such an approach would have an impact, consider Edmonton Oilers and Rexall Pharmacy owner Darryl Katz. Over the past few months, Katz is attempting to negotiate the construction of a new arena for the Oilers with the City of Edmonton. Katz was forced to apologize to fans after an ill-advised negotiating tactic when he threatened to move the team to Seattle and went as far as touring the facilities in Seattle. Perhaps Katz’s feared alienating his fan base as well as his customer base. 

Such a boycott may have a negligible impact on the NHL lockout, but it may be the only course of action for fans looking to display their ire in a language that NHL owners understand.