It’s like they just don’t understand.
“They” are NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL players association leader Donald Fehr, and “they” have been bickering for months over foreign financial terms like ‘escrow checks’ and ‘hockey-related revenue’.
At least, foreign until this September, when millions of North American hockey fans were forced to shift their interests from penalty kills to press conferences, seven-game series to mediation sessions. And yet these fans stuck by their league, following negotiations closely in hopes of getting their sport back.
When it appeared that the owners and players might have finally reached an agreement last week, millions took to social media, expressing a desperate but heartfelt hope for a season at last. Then the progress fell apart, the pessimism returned, and hockey’s fans went back to their hibernations, waiting like abused lovers for the sport that brings them so much heartbreak to return once again.
Bettman and Fehr don’t see it that way, though. They see a glittering pot of money and a plethora of vague, tricky, manipulative ways to get their hands on it — or attempt to, until the other side sees through the smoke screen, rants at the press and refuses to talk for another two weeks. Sounds progressive, right? To the owners and players and their entourages of sleazy sidekicks, it apparently does.
To the fans, including myself, not so much.
As a diehard Carolina Hurricanes fan — a watch-every-game-every-night kind of diehard fan — and would-be first-time season ticket holder, simply not having hockey is crushing in itself. Outside of the occasions in which I managed to grab a nosebleed, third-tier ticket for a game, listening to the iconic voice of NBC commentator Mike Emrick is a never-ending pastime throughout three seasons of the year. His easily-excitable tone, dramatic calls and personal cliches will always exemplify hockey in my mind.
Truthfully, I find it difficult to explain exactly how obsessed I am with a sport which I have never played, and yet, in its absence, I am without perhaps the singularly most entertaining and enthralling events in my life. For many, that kind of attachment would be depressing; for me, the lack of it is depressing.
But I’m also concerned for the future of a league marred with inconsistency — ridden with owners too stubborn to fire an ignorant commissioner and players too impatient to hold onto a merely untrustworthy one (Fehr is the fourth NHLPA head in seven years). While the two sides argue over a now-nearly negligible disagreement in how income should be spent, they continue to lose a combined $26-30 million in profits every day. Yet, nearly three months after it began, the lockout rolls on.
Hockey has grown in recent decades, landing a groundbreaking, prestige-making $2 billion TV deal with NBC through 2020 just last year, but that doesn’t mean it’s on fully stable footing. The MLB and NFL are still, most definitely, out of the NHL’s league, and the NBA remains the more popular sport with an October-to-April regular season. Now, British soccer is even making inroads on the NHL’s place in American sports hierarchy, signing a U.S. television deal (also with NBC) as recently as October.
Many American sports fans have yet to accept hockey as a legitimate major sport, a mindset that still baffles me. Yet I cannot blame them for this lack of interest. The NHL has brought this relegation to the professional sport shadows upon itself, combining a pattern of interrupting, infuriating lockouts with a laziness in casual fan outreach. Hockey is flush with dedicated fanatics; it can’t expand into the mainstream, however, until it finds a way to attract the average, stereotypical middling sports follower.
And that’s why this lockout is so infuriating. The NHL, growing and expanding and finally finding its niche in the United States, isn’t just murdering their most dedicated followers with blatant disregard for the common fan. They’re committing social suicide, too, squandering a promising opportunity to gain mainstream attention and profitability.
We, the average fans, are enraged. But there’s nothing we can do about it.