I’m not smart enough to know which side should give in the NHL’s latest labor dispute in order to ensure that there is not a 4th labor stoppage in the past 20 years for their league. In fact, I’m probably not even smart enough to discuss who should sign where in the NHL. It’s sometimes easier just to get ignorance right out in the open, so there are no questions about it later on.
What I am smart enough to do is ask this question: what the heck is the NHL (owners and players) thinking about doing? Have they forgot how the 2004-05 canceled season turned out? Revenue and opportunities were lost for both players and owners, and the league saw itself relegated from ESPN to Versus (which in the present isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but at the time was a major step backwards.) The league which had expended tremendous effort to make itself a mainstream option for sports fans gave all of that back.
Fast forward to the spring of 2012, and the NHL seems to have once again righted its ship with huge percentage jumps in terms of television audience. My friend Mike and I had many conversations regarding what we would regard as the professional ‘sport of the future’ for the U.S. and concluded that it would be the NHL. We came to this conclusion by assuming that youth hockey leagues would continue to expand as parents grew more concerned about their children getting concussions by playing football. Less youth football means a potentially watered down product in the future, which would be bad news for the NFL. MLB wasn’t in any better shape given its PED crisis that threatens to turn off the hard core fans which the league has long depended on, and the NBA at every turn appears to be intentionally damaging its product. The NHL we thought was likely to become the dominant professional sport in America. When the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to a group that was going to bring NHL hockey back to Winnipeg; it seemed to cement in our heads that the NHL was the league to watch going forward.
Then a couple of things started to happen, almost simultaneously, it seemed. On the one hand, owners were handing out 9 figure contracts like they were candy, and on the other hand, there was talk of an impending lockout. Sydney Crosby’s 12 year/$104.4 million deal was what really concerned. As noted at the onset, I’m not overly brilliant when it comes to the NHL. What I do know is that while Sydney Crosby is an extremely talented player, he has also spent the majority of the last 2 seasons not playing hockey due to concussions. This seemed like an awful big risk for a team involved in a sport that caters (mostly) to a blue-collar crowd and can’t necessarily count on huge corporate sponsors to bail them out of mistakes. In my limited opinion, the NHL needed to continue on the path it was on of rebuilding the public trust that had been destroyed following the 2004-05 season that wasn’t.
Other things I don’t know: how to get the NHL to fix its problem. I know there is a lot of talk about numbers and splits, and which teams are likely to make or lose money. None of that matters to me, and if I had a guess, I would say it doesn’t matter to most fans, either. Fans want to see their favorite teams play games, and give them something to cheer for and take out of their mundane everyday lives. That’s why sports are as successful as they are: they provide escapism. When the NHL (or any other sports league) airs their dirty laundry for the public to take see, everyone loses. The product becomes less palatable, because we as fans are reminded that while we use sport to forget about our every day lives, for these men, it is their every day lives. They don’t need to have the same passion that fans have, because they have the talent and they have the resources that allow the league to exist. For them, it’s a business decision, plain and simple. That line of thinking is a mistake, however.
There is no guarantee that if there is a lockout that fans will come back. There never is. MLB needed Cal Ripken and then PED-fueled home run chases to truly bring the fans back. I don’t know that the NHL has a solution like that, or if even their most hard core fans would be willing to sit through another stoppage in games. Even as a peripheral fan, I hope it’s something that we don’t have to find out.
What’s the solution to the NHL’s labor problems? Would you come back as a fan if there is another stoppage?
Let me know: