The other night I found myself sitting in my apartment, scouring through channels on TV for something to watch before the evening lineup of sports would take over the rest of my night. As I siphoned through all the sports channels, I stumbled upon a replay one of the classic Stanley Cup playoff games for the 2011 Boston Bruins. That season was a turning point in my hockey fandom.
I vaguely remembered the days of the lackluster Bruins who had promising star power like Joe Thornton, Sergei Samsonov and even Ray Bourque, but none of those teams produced championship aspirations. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was a fair-weather fan, but the 2011 Bruins definitely brought hockey into the realm of conversation for me and a lot of my friends.
Before that magical run in 2011, NHL had seen quite the decline in popularity among New Englanders and fans in other markets due to the lockout of 2004, which wiped out the entire NHL season. While the NHL endured its work stoppage, hockey fans were forced to turn to other sports, which resulted in increased viewership of the NBA and NFL.
The NHL resumed work the following year, but had fallen into the shadows a bit for a variety of lockout-related reasons. First, fans may have felt betrayed by teams and owners because of the unwillingness to separate their own agendas and agree on what was in the best interest of the fans. Another reason for the lack of interest upon resuming operations was a decrease in TV coverage and promotions: The NHL saw deals with ESPN and other sports outlets go without renewal, which made it harder for fans to watch their teams.
The league had been able to rebuild rapports with fans over these past few seasons. New television deals and a renewed competitiveness among teams led the charge and were bringing the NHL back into the spotlight and hearts of Americans.
But just when everything looked to be somewhat normal again, the issue of the collective bargaining agreement has once again stunted the growth and revitalization of the NHL.
The owners and the players association are once again at odds over issues such as maximum contract lengths, distribution of hockey revenue and player pension plans, just to name a few. There are villains on both sides:NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who was the same commissioner during the 2004 lockout, and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, the former executive director of the Major League Baseball player association.
Both Bettman and Fehr have egos that are toxic, even unfathomable, to opposing sides of this lockout, but they both have a keen sense of what their group should be entitled to, and they want to make the best deal possible for their side. It is the same as it was in 2004: both the NHL and the NHLPA seeking to put their own agendas to the forefront instead of finding a compromise that is suitable for everyone.
In recent weeks, both sides have made progress towards a 10-year CBA deal, but the egos still remain in the fold and are preventing anything from being fully resolved. The players try to negotiate, but Bettman has wiped away any standing offer that may have been in place, which puts things back to square one. Then there is the owner’s side, who would like nothing more than to uproot Fehr from the negotiations so they can have things their way.
Lost in all these personalities and agendas are the key cogs behind the NHL: the fans. Both sides may be saying all the right things and acting as if they are working to please fans, but if that were the case then fans would be well into the 2012 season right now and enjoying hockey as they have in years past. The fans are the ones who are helping players and owners make a living, because if they are not filling those seats, buying the merchandise or watching at home, then the NHL is nothing.
So it may be a shot in the dark here, but maybe the opposing sides could sit down for 5 minutes and set aside the resentment while realizing who this league really relies on. They need to stop thinking with their loaded wallets and start to think with their heads and hearts. If the owners and players love the game as much as the fans do, then there is no reason for them to not be able to find a balanced compromise.
It’s time to just get the deal done and for both the owners and players to stop believing the state of the league solely rests on their replaceable shoulders. The fans are the ones who cannot be replaced here. very day this continues, the NHL can watch those fans walk away while the league withers.