By Mark Falanga and Timothy Dillon
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Hockey fans are not a bunch to mess with. They like the hard hits, they can handle the cold, and they really do not enjoy being locked out. The latest NHL lockout took effect September 15, 2012 at 11:59PM and would last for 119 days. The final round of negotiations that ended this freeze on the sport lasted 16 hours. In effect, the negotiations also aimed to try and prevent another lockout for years to come. Though much of this season is lost, the NHL outlined a 10-year plan as to prevent further loss of games, with a stipulation that if both sides of the table, the owners and the players, come together after eight years to renegotiate.
For the owners, the lockout aimed to reduce players revenues from 57 percent to 46 percent, while simultaneously changing the rules as to what counts as players revenues. The change in terminology would further diminish the players revenues to around 43 percent. Further, they are also eliminating signing bonuses so teams cannot front-load a player’s salary. Now, perhaps this is the owners’ attempt at trying to encourage fiscal responsibility on the part of the players. It would make sense to try and get steady, more realistic pay for players. However, it also has the side effect of a player not being able to negotiate their value freely.
A hockey player is expected to go through year-after-year of grueling training, hard hits, and numerous injuries from one of the most aggressive and fast-paced sports out there. The fact of the matter is most of these players have a relatively short ice life. After all, these athletes do not start and stop with the week-to-week frequency of a football player’s schedule, and the speeds they can get up to on ice far exceed your average running speed.
Hockey players come and go quickly and retire young at an average age of 28. Players do the work that brings in the fans in the first place, they ought be allowed to negotiate their value. It is not just about a paycheck, its also about recognition of talent and skill. That said, these players would be nothing without the people who built their league, namely the owners.
Obviously to ensure the stability of a franchise, you need to be able to make profit from your brand. That said, they also wanted to limit the maximum contract a new player can make to only four years. How can owners expect players to have a fair shake at renegotiating their contracts if they place limitations on where they enter?
Can we ask the simple question? Are they really losing 40 percent of a season to see how much players and owners can make from the remaining 60 percent? How much money won’t be made because of this discussion over distribution of wealth? The start of the hockey season has produced some excited games with rusty players.
Underneath all of this fighting between owners and players amidst a very expensive game of chicken, the fans are the ones who suffer the most. Their passion and outrage for the prolonged lockout can be easily seen in a quick Google search. The question at hand is not whether or not fans will still be angry now that the NHL has returned, but whether or not the fans will be back at all.
To discuss this in depth, who better to speak with than the president and founder of the National Hockey League Fan Association (NHLFA), Jim Boone?
“To be honest, fans have a tendency to come flocking back,” Boone tells BTR, “the NHL has a rabid fan base that continues to support the league.”
But not every fan is content with just blindly supporting the league. NHL fan Steve Chase started his own campaign urging fans to boycott one game for every game lost during the lockout. His Facebook group, “Just Drop the Puck,” garnered more than 21,000 likes over the course of the NHL lockout and the supporting video has more than 87,000 views.
“Our stance has been we don’t want to punish them, we just want hockey back.” said Chase, “It’s just a one-for-one thing. We just want to make it fair. We hoped it was going to be over before it ever got to this.”
Jim Boone, however doesn’t think that a boycott against the NHL will work.
“I was the biggest offender,” he said. “The first night the NHL came back, I watched 4 games that day.”
He isn’t alone in his opinion. A similar, albeit different, attitude was held by fans of Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2007. It had been the 15th consecutive losing season for the team, and most fans thought that the ownership wasn’t doing enough to keep the club competitive.
So fans got together and organized a walk out, in which fans would leave the stadium after the third inning of the game. The only problem was not enough fans participated. ESPN observed that of the 100 fans that left their seats after the third inning, many came back.
So where does this leave fans of the NHL? It seems as though they’re between a rock and a hard place. Fans hate the fact that they’ll probably hold interest in a league despite work stoppages, having no will power to completely shun the game.
One thing is clear that new management of the league is needed, especially for the commissioner of the league, a position held by Gary Bettman since 1993. In Bettman’s tenure , the league saw impressive growth and record revenues.
However, the growth was not without hardships that many fans feel may have hurt the league in the long run. He gave approval to move teams from traditional hockey towns such as Minneapolis and Winnipeg to more profitable areas such as Dallas and Phoenix respectively. The results did not pan out as expected.
Despite the move, both teams rank near the very bottom in attendance. Fan opinion of Bettman is not very high either, as demonstrated by the proliferation of websites like FireBettman.com and Bettmansucks.com. Boone agreed with this and stated in the interview that the time for him to step down has come. In fact, in 2004, Boone actually wrote a letter to Gary Bettman asking him to step down prior to the 2004-2005 lockout.
Hopefully with new leadership, the NHL will avoid a lockout at the expiration of this current deal and let fans get back to watching hockey.