After completely taking hockey away from their fans with a lockout that lasted for months and months, the NHL's fans are back to support the business in record numbers. Why? Because they're a bunch of dummies.
In the NHL, it’s imperative that you stand up for yourself. It’s a borderline barbaric league where toughness is its own virtue valued above all else (yes, even more than “skill” and “wins” sometimes). That’s true for fans, the media, and based on the continued employment of heavyweight super-fighters like Colton Orr, that’s the case for teams as well.
Colton Orr destroying Deryk Engelland with his fists.
In hockey, if you take a cheap shot at an opponent, they’ll remember your number and you know you’re going to get one back. Meanwhile if an opponent takes a run at a star on your team, and you don’t answer it with reciprocal violence, well then you’re going to be shipped out of town unless you’re an all-world talent.
That’s the code, that’s the way it has always been. And until an increased awareness of the risks posed by concussions and degenerative brain diseases like CTE filter down sufficiently into the culture surrounding the game, that’s the way it will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
That’s how the game of hockey works, but paradoxically, it’s not how the hockey business functions.
The NHL has, during Gary Bettman’s tenure as league commissioner, locked out its players for basically two full seasons when you add up the entirety of the 04-05 season, half of the 94-95 season, and half of the 2011-12 season. The NHL has missed significantly more games than any other professional league over the same span. In some ways, this was the third time that the NHL has disregarded its fans, made like Milan Lucic, and taken a run at their fans’ metaphorical goaltender.
But hockey returned this week, and the fans reacted like, well, the 2011-12 Buffalo Sabres: a team that was softer than a goose down pillow. As a result, the world’s “best fans” categorically failed the NHL’s punk test.
In 2004, the NHL went after the NHLPA and cancelled a full season in order to get a salary cap imposed on the league. Most clubs weren’t making money and owners were paying well over 70% of league revenues just to cover the cost of player salaries. For the most part, the fans understood that the model was broken and were on the owners’ side.
This fall, however, when the NHL took a run at the NHLPA, it didn’t look like a desperate move borne out of necessity. Instead it looked to many fans like an injurious, chicken-shit knee-on-knee hit with both sides sharing culpability.
By mid-October the two sides had basically agreed, for example, on a 50-50 split of league revenues. But the lockout persisted for another two and a half months because the NHL and the NHLPA could barely spend an hour in a room together, much less figure out how to build a bridge and start playing some goddamn hockey again.
A photograph of a velociraptor hunting for children who are hiding in a kitchen, from the film: "Jurassic Park."
At the end of the day, the owners who have a monopoly on professional hockey in North America got their way. But, they didn’t get all of what they wanted, and frankly, this looks like another deal that the players will “win” over the long-term. Highly skilled labour is like a velociraptor in Jurassic Park, you can make the species hermaphroditic or you can place a cap on salaries, but both the raptor and the hockey player want to be free. So fuck it. They’ll find a way, and that way will likely lead to many more lockouts for us to enjoy in the future.
If you doubt that the fans have come back in droves, then just go ahead and check the numbers. NBC drew their biggest audience in 14 years with their double header on opening day. In Canada, Rogers Sportsnet’s first regional Leafs broadcast drew one million viewers, while their first regional Canucks broadcast brought in 600,000 thousand.
In Pittsburgh – hockey’s new Mecca apparently – the regional broadcast scored a 12.6 rating and drew just a tick under a million viewers for a weekend game between the Penguins and Rangers that went up against the AFC title game. Hockey didn’t beat football, but it certainly held its own. There were record regional ratings in Boston and Washington as well.
You might say that these numbers are simply because those territories are hockey hotbeds. Surely the casual fans in non-traditional NHL markets were turned off by the cynical greed of the NHL lockout. Nope.
In Columbus, a small television market with a woefully depressing team, the ratings were up 130 percent over last season’s opener. This comes on the heels of a trade where Columbus sent the face of their franchise to New York for pennies on the dollar just this past summer! Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers saw a 300% increase on television viewers for their season opener over their opener a season ago.
The Panthers also played to a packed house (103% attendance, actually), and so did Tampa Bay, Nashville, and Dallas. Phoenix didn’t, maybe because their lame duck council approved gouging the public trough to support an ownerless team that’s still probably doomed in that market. But otherwise fans weren’t just watching the games for free on television, they were back, filling arenas, and actively contributing to the NHL’s revenue stream.
"Just Drop It": the "Idle No More" of hockey.
“Those numbers are inflated by all the free giveaways” opines Steve Chase a hockey fan who started “Just Drop It” a protest movement with a group of other Los Angeles based hockey fans (including some former professional players) who play a weekly game.
At the height of the lockout, the Just Drop It Facebook page had 20 thousand “likes”, and their pledge video garnered major media attention (from the Associated Press, Yahoo, the Toronto Star etc.). The idea behind the movement was that, for every game cancelled after December 21st, Just Drop It asked fans to “boycott” a similar number of games (divided by thirty to account for the amount of teams in the league) upon the resumption of hockey.
So even the hockey fans who are mad enough about the lockout to offer token resistance are putting a time-limit on that anger. Earl Gordon, a Canucks season ticket holder who kept his season tickets (if he gave them up he’d lose his place, and have to go through a multi-year waiting list to get them back), but is scalping every single one for this season, echoes that sentiment: “I don’t want to be spending extra money on hockey this year, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be mad.”
“There was nothing vindictive about Just Drop It, we love hockey,” Steve Chase says “We were drawing a line in the sand: you hit us once, we’ll hit you once. You hit us twice, we’ll hit you twice. It’s one for one.” Spoken like a true hockey fan.
Steve says he’s holding firm to his pledge, though he’s keeping up with the league’s game through highlights.
“When there's no free beer, and no free games, and no discounted rates, will people still be filling the house in Tampa?” Frankly, I think so. If the numbers are really inflated by the discounted rates, and the free giveaways (most of which weren’t even that generous and just included sales on merchandise and food), then what explains the record television ratings?
What’s particularly ironic about the whole thing, is that the NHL product itself is not particularly good right now. Teams are out of sync because they had an accelerated one week training camp to prepare, and there’s a whole host of out of shape players struggling to get back into shape following a seven or eight month layoff.
So, fans are returning in record numbers to watch an inferior product in the immediate aftermath of an extended lockout that was motivated by greed and prolonged by pettiness.
Steve is circumspect. "Hockey's back and that's what we wanted, fantastic. Did we have a part in that? Probably in the big picture, not. But did we send a message? Yep. Did we get heard? Absolutely."
Unfortunately for hockey fans, eight years down the road when the owners opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement, that message won’t echo nearly as loudly as the gentle patter that has emanated from the millions of hockey fans who have been willingly re-opening their wallets for a bunch of scum sucking plutocrats, and the millionaire athletes they insufficiently compensate.
Follow Thomas on Twitter: @ThomasDrance
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