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How A Sport Can Lose Fans: On the NHL Lockout

NHL - My Avs JerseyI want you to take a look at the picture on the left.  That is the Colorado Avalanche jersey I purchased in 1997.  I began to follow hockey following the Winter Olympics of 1992, when the games would be caught during the day in between class periods.  This strange sport from far to the north was a new thing for me.  Through one of my brothers and several friends at work in Party City, I was slowly moved to support the newly-formed Colorado Avalanche after they moved from Quebec.  It seemed to make sense: new team full of young kids which would give us a chance to avoid jumping on a bandwagon.

Of course, we had no idea that the Avs were on the verge of becoming a great team and a champion – which they did the year they moved to Denver.  Or that they were about to engage in one of the most heated and hated rivalries in all of modern sports with the Detroit Red Wings.  Both of those things just further fueled our appetite for the sport.  As we moved to college, myself, my brother Al and our friends became known around campus as those guys who are way into hockey.  These were the halcyon days of hockey for us – the games were on ESPN, NHL 2Nite with John Buccigross, Chicken Parm and Barry Melrose’s Epic Mullet was a nightly ritual, the Olympic teams featuring All-Stars in Nagano, Japan (games at the ass-crack of dawn before classes) were consumed and we wasted countless hours playing hockey video games.

Through it all we got to enjoy some great games and teams: the Avalanche had Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy, the Red Wings had Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov and Mike Vernon, Mike Modano’s and Sergei Zubov’s Dallas Stars, Dominic Hasek was doing backflips in Buffalo, rats were being thrown in Florida and on and on.  When New Orleans got an ECHL team (the now defunct New Orleans Brass), we attended lots of games.  Sure, it wasn’t the NHL, but it was live hockey and for a great price, we could sit near the ice and enjoy it.  I agree with every person who says that hockey is one of the best sports to see live and that the TV really doesn’t do it justice.  The ice is smooth and white.  The players are faster than you can imagine.  Every hit rattles the glass and the sound of the skates barely hitting the ice as they fly on by is incredible.  The sport is awesome and the NHL was fun.  And really, we shouldn’t have been surprised that it didn’t last.NHL - Wayne Gretzky Hockey 98

Teams like the Avalanche were built upon a financial model that was unrealistic.  Between 1995 and 2002, the Avalanche were notorious players in the trade market, picking up stars that other teams couldn’t/wouldn’t pay: Patrick Roy, Rob Blake, Darius Kasparitis, Shjon Podein, Theo Fleury and Ray Bourque would all arrive in Denver to play for the Avs.  This while paying top dollar for Sakic, Forsberg, Roy, Chris Drury, Adam Foote, Milan Hejduk and others.  In fact, matching Joe Sakic’s offer sheet from New York in 1997 created an aftershock that caused the league to raise the contracts of all players around.  The Avs were hardly the only team throwing money around.  Every year, you’d have teams like the Red Wings, Stars, Rangers, Devils and other contenders flashing the cash.  Avs GM Pierre Lacroix was a master at wheeling and dealing but it all relied on a system where the league’s revenue and support would never waver.

By 2004, the situation came to a head as the league and the players became embroiled in a fight to determine how the new Collective Bargaining Agreement would look like.  The need for a salary cap for the owners versus the refusal by the players for such a labor constraint led to the league shutting down its doors and its season – the only time a major professional league has ever shut itself off completely.  Like most fans, I was disappointed but knew that there would be a resolution at some point.  So I set it all aside, focused on other sports and waited for hockey to return.

NHL - OLNUnfortunately, when it came back, I couldn’t see it.  The NHL, long a staple on ESPN, had agreed to move its entire TV presence to the Outdoors Life Network (OLN) due to a better deal that the cable network best known for hunting shows gave.  I’ve never understood why commissioner Gary Bettman did that.  I mean, ESPN may have been driving a hard bargain, but it was better to remain friendly with the Big Bristol Behemoth, which promotes its partner leagues like crazy, than to go to someone who was trying to challenge it.  Not surprising, ESPN ended most of their hockey coverage beyond the cursory SportsCenter piece.  And with finding OLN on cable being as difficult as finding a virgin at the Playboy Mansion, I lost my everyday connection to the sport.

And that year that the NHL went missing allowed me to replace it with other substitutes.  Everything from mixed martial arts to soccer, college football and the NBA became more and more regular in my viewing habits.  Plus, given the new financial landscape, players were jumbled and tossed every which way, severing the connection I had to the teams and how I identified them.  (Well, except for the Red Wings, of course.  The feelings towards those assholes ain’t changed).  The passion level went down and I found myself becoming a more casual fan.  If I caught a game, that was nice.  But I was no longer searching for the sport.  And even as the sport has become more popular than ever thanks to talents like Sydney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, I couldn’t bring myself to care more than to watch the occasional Saturday game or the Stanley Cup Finals when they were on NBC.  I haven’t bought a new NHL video game in ages.  When the Brass folded, that ended my going to see hockey live.  And the only piece of hockey merchandise I got left is that jersey I still got in my closet.

Don’t misunderstand me: at every season’s start, I make an effort to track Avalanche games.  I look at the schedule and see when they will be on NBC or the nearest Fox Sports affiliate.  By the time December rolls around, I’m embroiled in Saints football, Hornets basketball, Arsenal and the NHL has gone by the wayside.  Even the Winter Classic only gets a cursory glance as I move towards finding the Cotton Bowl.  NHL-LOCKOUT

And this is something that should worry the NHL and the NHLPA as they move towards another chunk of the season getting cancelled.  Yes, there will always be hotbeds of hockey where diehards will wait with bated breath for the return of the Maple Leafs, of the Jets, of the Wild or of the Islanders.  But there will be just as many young guys who, like me, will find their attention and their interest drawn towards other sports and other stories.  The longer the league takes in coming back, the greater the distance it creates from its fans – who, let’s be honest, have to be tired of going through these labor wars by now.

Some say that absence makes the heart grow fonder.  I call BS on that.  Absence makes the heart forget.  Absence makes you look for new, different options.  It lets you reassess your relationship and make you wonder if the other one gives a crap about you.  And the more fans begin to reassess their relationship with hockey, the more the NHL begins to fall into that pile of sports that gets listed under “Other” and not as a major sport.  If it isn’t there already for most sports-crazy Americans.

NHL - Bettman

But that’s OK. I’m sure Gary Bettman has a brilliant plan to gain lost ground: THE SUMMER CLASSIC!! Hockey on the grass of Yankee Stadium!

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