This past June I noted that the now-expired CBA only made any mention of the fans on two occasions and that they are otherwise only detectable indirectly, through the massive flow of revenue.
While fan support does sustain the league, they really don’t have a reason to be mentioned in any collective bargaining agreement. When Chrysler and the United Auto Workers hammer out a CBA, they don’t include the customer, and the car customer is every bit as instrumental in sustaining that industry as the fan is in sustaining hockey.
Still, an automotive labor dispute isn’t likely to inspire rabid Chrysler fans to Tweet their outrage over the delayed arrival of the latest Town & Country minivan.
Not so with hockey’s labor dispute, where social media has become the battleground for the NHL and the NHLPA to fight for public opinion, and for the otherwise voiceless fan to have his say. Enter one such fan, whose campaign to be heard is as improbable as it is admirable.
RAISING AN ARMY
Edmonton’s own Joshua Brindza launched the National Hockey League Fans Army (NHLFA) at the beginning of September.
“My goal is to give fans a voice and to get hockey back,” says Brindza. As every fan can reasonably attest, his goal does attend to a growing unmet need not only in pro hockey but in professional sports in general: an organized representation of the fans. “Both sides are still thinking a lot more about themselves than the fans, but ever since we all declared war on the lockout using social media as our ammunition, players and owners have taken notice.”
He cites the fast-evolving PR campaigns from both players and the league as at least partial evidence that the fans are having “a bigger impact than anyone suspected.”
At just 13 years old, Brindza may find himself and his movement marginalized, even though he counts several thousand Twitter followers, including a number of prominent players.
Chris Denman, one of Brindza’s instructors at the Catholic school he attends in Edmonton, seems entirely unsurprised by his student’s initiative, telling me the kid is especially bright and inquisitive, and that he has “a true passion for hockey, on the ice and off.” (Denman is also the goaltending consultant for the school’s Hockey Academy).
A true passion for hockey is common enough among Canadian kids, but how many do what Brindza is doing? He told Global Edmonton TV that when the NHL does come back, that an appropriate response would be to boycott as many games as are lost in the lock-out.
At the current rate, that might mean boycotting the 2013-2014 NHL season.
Either way, Brindza is striking the right note there. The only effective means of letting the owners and the players know how slighted the fans feel by this lockout is by hitting them at the bottom line. In 1972 Ken Dryden told the TV show Telescope:
“As soon as he starts giving up his season tickets, that’s the time when the fan will be listened to.”
Any organized boycott–of a certain number of games, of something precious to the league like the Winter Classic– would be the kind of story mainstream media outlets would fall over one another to cover.
It would also boost the credibility of a fan-led association, and it would give players and owners visceral proof of the passion fans have for the game and the impact that the lockout had on them, on those employed by the league, and on local businesses that rely on hockey.
It might also spell the end of my own pet peeve: the lip service paid to fans in the form of condescending, year-end thank-yous. At the end of each season, players and owners are quick to heap thank-you after thank-you onto us fans for our support. They say it so often it’s like they think that saying thank-you is free.
I have no doubt that their thank-yous are genuine. As genuine as they are convenient. Frankly I think fans would gladly accept a 99% roll-back on all player and owner thank-yous and PR acknowledgements if the players and owners would agree to a 50-50 mutual roll-over on CBA negotiations and drop the puck already.
REMINDING AN ARMY
And this hints at one of the many reasons I’m rooting for Brindza and his initiative.
I never would have imagined that there would come a day in which the most inspirational and likable figure in all of pro hockey for me would be a 13 year old Catholic school goalie, but that day has come. Even if the NHLFA vanishes the moment the puck finally drops in the NHL, Brindza’s initiative is already more admirable and speaks more to aspirational qualities than anything we’re likely to see from anyone connected to the NHL this season.
As the lockout continues to teach us fans mostly unflattering things about the players (while teaching us nothing we didn’t already know about the owners), it is occasionally teaching us good things about our fellow fans.
Right now the players and the league are drab reminders that pro hockey is a business—a business like any other prosaic, predictably droll and profit-driven business.
Brindza meanwhile is a reminder of everything else about hockey—the passion, competition, and devotion to the game that spun us all into fans in the first place.