by Jas Faulkner, contributing editor and general purpose grouch
In the last 117 days, the big stories of the season happened at locations that are not normally associated with North American major league hockey. While NHL franchises scrambled to stay in the public eye with charitable activities and opportunities to skate where the big boys play, the leagues associated with “feeder teams” enjoyed increased interest. Players who did not flee to European arenas found berths on familiar ice. In Milwaukee and Minsk, fans got to enjoy the thrill of seeing heroes coming home.
So with players dispersed all over the globe and the faithful in the hinterlands invested in their teams and working on the assumption that their investment is shared by all of those newcomers, I have to wonder what happens next. Of course there were legal and administrative devices in place from day one, but I have wonder what the effect will be on fans who feel that concerns over the dollar (both Canadian and US) have replaced a true love of the game.
Every league that has engaged in a lockout has found themselves on the receiving end of backlash. It will be no different for the NHL, which had just regained some of the ground it lost in 2005. Former fans who were embittered by relocations that seemed to make no cultural or financial sense, who saw a league whose soul seemed lost to filthy lucre were just beginning to come around when rumblings about outrageous contracts and arbitration over salaries that were knee-weakeningly huge by hockey standards became marquee issues.
I will go so far to say that for every two fans who will be in their seats, proudly wearing their fan gear and ready to cheer, there will be a fan who has been part of the faithful for years. That fan might have been a season ticket holder. They might even be part of a line of generations of fans. They love their team just like they love their cities. It’s part of who they are. In spite of all of that, they just can’t seem to put their heart into it.
NHL and NHLPA? It’s up to you to win back those hearts and minds you have lost or lost again over the last 117 days. Whether you’ll ever admit it or not, you owe those fans, big time. You also owe the people whose jobs depend on your dropping the puck at regular intervals all over the continent. You owe the leagues that gave your players somewhere to skate. You own team support staff who have kept the fires burning while Bettman and Fehr have been going at each other like cast members of a boys’ prep school production of Mean Girls.
Not that the lockout was all bad for everyone. Fans discovered new talent, adopted team traditions from other places, and found out how good those minor league venues can be. Here at The Hockey Writers, we discovered talented writers and watched as some reporters flourished when faced with finding stories without the usual sources in place. We also discovered that at least one owner and many players were indeed the class acts we’d suspected they were. All over the league, athletes who stayed home did good works for their cities’ people in need. Mark Chipman, chairman of the owners group of the Winnipeg Jets, sent a letter of apology to the fans and the press when talks broke down early in December.
At some point, somewhere, some organisation, if not the league itself will proudly declare that “Hockey is back!” I have news for you, gentlemen. It never left. And now it’s up to you to catch up with the people you turned your back on late last year.