As talks continue this week, word is that the NHL season would start December 1 and be roughly 70 games (with a one-week training camp) if the two sides can reach an agreement soon.
The idea that these months of misery could kill a mere 12 games is absurd. The league can somehow cram 70 games into five months, but every other year the season starts in October while the Cup Finals end in June? Expect even more injuries than usual if the league rushes into a super-compressed schedule just to keep more ticket revenues.
A 70-game lockout season also begs the question: why is a normal not-locked-out season so damned long? The NHL regular season is ridiculously extended… October games are mostly overshadowed by football and the World Series anyway, and it’s a joke that hockey is played in sweltering post-Memorial Day heat (not to mention the terrible ice quality impacting play). Such a long season makes individual games mean so much less, particularly when more than half the league makes the playoffs anyway. A 70-game season from November 1 to the end of March, with the Cup awarded in mid-May… doesn’t that sound nice?
That’s just an intellectual exercise, though, since the league will never seriously consider shortening seasons—the gate-driven nature of the league’s revenues makes doing the right thing too financially unappealing, just like switching to Olympic-sized rinks won’t happen either since it would require removing some very expensive seats. Basically, what’s good for fans (and good for the game) isn’t good for the bottom line; we know what wins in that fight, don’t we?
That these labor negotiations are “just business” is one of the most common lockout mantras repeated by both the NHL and the NHLPA—it’s all an effort to secure the best long-term deal for their respective financial interests. Both sides profess their love of the game and their regret that fans, as well as remora-like businesses that depend on hockey, are left out in the cold while the lockout drags on… and that’s very likely true for players and owners alike. But at its core the lockout a simple management-versus-union fight as one sees in corporate and public spheres all the time. And that’s fine; it’s certainly their right to seek the best deal they can get.
Ah, but here’s the rub: portraying themselves as two factions in a corporate-style showdown does nothing to engender the fan loyalty they so need to succeed. Even NHL great Larry Robinson, in a recent Grantland interview, says of the league: “It’s big business now. If you look at what they’re talking about in revenues, you’re not talking about millions, you’re talking about billions.”
It’s hard to sympathize with two sides fighting to split so much money when one knows that little (if any) will make it back into fans’ pockets. If you’re expecting significantly lower ticket prices after the lockout, then you must have an impressive stash of that newly-legal Colorado Rocky Mountain High.
The emphasis on the NHL as a business will (or at least should) have repercussions on fan loyalty. That ticket you buy to watch a game? It’s just a financial transaction: $XX for a couple hours of entertainment, like a movie. That’s always been the case, of course, but the NHL trades on fan loyalty to make it feel like so much more than that. Sports leagues rely on fans to buy piles of merchandise featuring their favorite teams and players; to create a high-energy atmosphere for the home team; to support the team with time, money, and loyalty well beyond simply attending games.
But as we accurately look at the NHL as simply a business whose products we buy in exchange for entertainment, ask yourself: How many corporate t-shirts and hats do you buy each year to proclaim your love of Microsoft or whatever? Or, after seeing a movie, if it’s a good one you spend a little time chatting about it with your friends and then move on, right? If it’s a bad movie when you expected a good one, you probably aren’t in a dark mood for a really long time (okay, maybe after The Phantom Menace). And if you have movie tickets you can’t use, you just sell your tickets to someone else to make your money back, or make a little profit on your investment. After all, as the NHL’s core values lay exposed for all to see during this lockout, we are reminded that the owners and players clearly put profit first.
Fans shouldn’t let the owners and players sucker them into unquestioning fanaticism again, to fall for pleas to blindly support the NHL the second the games resume. Oh, this squabble won’t change anyone’s love of hockey, particularly for those who strap on skates and hit the ice themselves. And nothing compares to watching the best hockey players in the world compete; we’ll still enjoy seeing them play the games when they return.
But if after this lockout too many die-hards remain loyal NHL fanatics—buying piles of NHL trinkets and getting right back to rabidly cheering like nothing happened—well then owners and players will simply start the fight anew in six years or so and will learn nothing. At least when that next lockout happens, the no-longer-fanatic fans won’t be as crushed by the news.
So when you consider sinking hard-earned cash into that cool-looking jersey, or trying to sell your tickets to only hometown fans, or simply getting so bummed out by your team’s performance that it drives you crazy, just remember: the NHL is a business. And your purchase of tickets is a business transaction, nothing more. If fans want to express their displeasure over the lockout, then they must withhold their dollars—the language owners and players truly understand.
So yes, of course we’re all hoping these meetings end the madness and bring hockey back to our darkened arenas. I want to see the Capitals’ blades carving ice and throwing snow as they fly down the rink. I want to see laser-beam slapshots, seeing-eye wristers, bone-jarring hits, and acrobatic saves.
But the NHL and NHLPA have reminded fans of their true colors, and fans should take heed of their example: put your own interests first, ahead of any vague concept of loyalty to an organization that views fans primarily as a source of revenue. Just enjoy the on-ice entertainment, have fun and cheer (or if it goes badly then curse and rant, which can be fun in its own way).
In the end, though, remember that this lockout drives home a basic truism about the NHL; in the words Mario Puzo:
“It’s nothing personal, only business.”