A second chance for the NHL
Now it gets interesting.
Now it’s time for hockey fans to make a decision.
Now we’re about to see if those who pay the freight for National Hockey League owners and players were truly affected by four months without their favourite game.
For, if nothing else, we learned time and time again during the 113-day NHL lockout that talk is cheap. And although the two sides in the protracted work stoppage said much and accomplished little, many hockey fans were also busy flapping their lips, making claims they’ll soon have to back up.
It’s hard to believe for a second that all those who vowed they were done with the NHL will follow through on those promises. Sure, some who never really embraced the game in the first place will keep their distance and perhaps even retreat further than before. And a handful of truly disgruntled fans may walk away. For the most part, though, fans in hockey markets like Vancouver will return to their chosen sport the minute the puck drops on a shortened season later this month.
The talk of protests and online movements urging boycotts sound fine in theory and are easy to support when all that’s required is the click of a mouse. But the bottom line is that in a city the size of Vancouver, there will always be 18,000 people ready to fill Rogers Arena any night the Canucks hit the ice. Almost all of the tickets are already bought and paid for by season-ticket holders, and the single-game seats that remain will be snapped up in a hurry. That’s just the way it is.
Some will come rushing back to the game as if it was never gone. Others will hold a grudge, but they’ll be lured back too. It will be impossible to gauge the damage that all the squabbling between owners and players has done by scanning the seats at Rogers Arena—or any Canadian rink—on game night. They’ll be full once again, same as they were before the game disappeared.
It’s safe to assume that many of those going to games will think twice about shelling out their hard-earned money at the concession stands, in an effort to save a buck and make a statement at the same time. But people have to eat, so it’s foolish to think there’ll be much of a drop-off in food sales.
One caller to a radio show I hosted recently, though, was steadfast in his promise to flush his tickets for the first few home games. He said he wasn’t prepared to give up his season seats but wanted his spot in the stands to go empty for the early part of the schedule in a personal show of defiance. And he most certainly didn’t want to give the tickets to friends or clients because he didn’t want them going to the game and lining the owner’s pocket by loading up on food and drinks. He won’t be alone. And others will have their own forms of individual protest.
Where the casual fan can—and will—make his or her voice heard loudest is at the merchandise booth or team store. Rather than turn their back on the game they love, fans will surely think twice before purchasing team and league apparel. That’s a trend that likely began in advance of the holiday season, when merchandise sales are usually sky-high.
With hockey on hold these past four months, it’s safe to assume that not nearly as many people bucked up for NHL–related Christmas gifts, and that approach is likely to continue once the season gets under way. People will still go to the games, but there will probably be fewer fans decked out in Canucks colours the way they have been in the past. Or if they’re wearing a Canucks jersey, T-shirt, or hat, it’ll be an old one bought before the lockout.
There will be a cost to the NHL for doing business the way it has—not just with this work stoppage but with scrapping the entire 2004–05 season and cancelling half of the 1994–95 campaign before that. As a company, you can’t treat your fans—your best customers—that way and not expect some sort of blowback. Damage has certainly been done to what was a thriving US$3.3-billion enterprise.
But the consequences in Canada will be softened by the deep-seated passion fans have for the sport. The real damage to the NHL will be done in places where the game was on life support to begin with. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the league attempts to reach out to fans in nontraditional hockey markets to let them know the sport has returned, when many won’t have noticed it was missing to begin with.
How will the NHL convince people to give it a second chance when the game is something they didn’t embrace in the first place? The simple truth is that it won’t be easy. It wasn’t prior to the lockout, and now that challenge is eminently more difficult. But that’s the mountain the NHL has to climb.
The new collective-bargaining agreement was designed to help the fledgling franchises survive, and they’ll do so with revenue-sharing help from the economic engines of the league—teams like the Vancouver Canucks.
And the Canucks will have money to share because hockey fans here will be back in full force whenever the new season begins. They very well may think the lockout stunk, but they’ll hold their noses as they pass through the turnstiles at Rogers Arena all season long.