As lockout continues, NHL testing the limits of fan loyalty in some markets

Robin
Robin Short
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In keeping with peace and harmony and goodwill among men this Holiday Season, we bring you ... the National Hockey League.

In the wake of unrest, the NHL finds time, every now and again, to laud its clients, "the greatest fans in the world," the league's supreme leader, one Gary Bettman, is wont to say.

Have to say, they've got a funny way of treating the paying customers.

As the lockout drags on - given my profession, I hope it ends soon; as a 47-year-old male who enjoys a hockey game as much as the next guy, they can stay out from now until the end of time for all I care - there is fear a disconnect between the league, its players and the fans will only widen, accelerating a certain doom for more than one southern U.S. franchise.

But that disconnect, that gulf, arguably has been there for some time now.

Some may fluff this off as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but it's atypical of professional sports as a whole and its disassociation with the very people who pay the bills - the fans.

For without people in the seats or watching from home, there are no lucrative TV contracts (see NFL), no need for personal appearances, no pot from which cash can be taken to pay the athletes.

I recall a time, not that long ago, when players - gasp! - signed autographs during the pre-game skate. I can picture Bobby Hull now, signing against the Montreal Forum glass during his brief run as a Hartford Whaler.

I can recall fans waiting at the corner of Atwater and de Maisonneuve as players exited the Forum, or behind Maple Leaf Gardens.

Today, fans can get nowhere near the players before, during or after the game, the two sides separated by 10-foot-high plexiglass.

In today's new arenas, players enter and exit the rinks in their Escalades and Navigators through an underground garage.

In fact, I still remember the Maple Leafs' pre-season game at Mile One Centre back in 2002, when Toronto's Garry Valk - Garry Valk! - asked a Mile One staffer if there was a side exit, presumably to escape the throng of autograph seekers clamouring for his signature.

It's different today. Different in every way.

So while the NHL will continue with its lip service in relation to its supporters, rest assured that whenever the league is back on ice it will be in front of fewer spectators.

Maybe not in Montreal or Toronto or Philadelphia or New York City, but quite likely in Florida, Dallas, Columbus and Phoenix.

And in a league that has a monetary system driven by ticket sales, as opposed to network contracts, that's not good.

And the morons have only themselves to blame.

IN SHORT

How is it you can't buy a Cuban cigar in the United States, but you can walk out with anything from a handgun to a canon from a gun show in that country? I mean, is this not the definition of madness? ... Listening to satellite radio the other day when a long-suffering Washington Redskins fan called in. "We haven't had a quarterback since Mark Rypien, and now that we've got RG3 (rookie phenom Robert Griffin III), when things are finally looking up, the world's coming to an end!" ... Most local hockey-watchers agree: while you can get a decent read on senior teams prior to Christmas, it's not until after the Jan. 10 signing deadline does the "real" hockey season begin ... Credit to Jays general manager Alex Anthopolous for going all in next season, especially considering the Yankees figure to slip after years of dominance, the Red Sox, while improved, aren't ready to contend, and the Rays dealt a 15-game winner from last season. Now, the question(s) is/are: can Ricky Romero rebound to his 2011 form, can Melky Cabrera produce without roids, can Mark Buehrle's 33-year-old arm, with 2,600-plus innings, hold up, was Edwin Encarnacion's 2011 season a fluke, can Jose Bautista come back from injury? If it's yes to these questions, the Jays will be playoff-bound for the first time since 1993 ...

Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor. He can be reached by email rshort@thetelegram.com

Organizations: National Hockey League, Montreal Forum, Hartford Whaler Maple Leafs Washington Redskins Yankees Red Sox

Geographic location: United States, Toronto, Atwater Maple Leaf Gardens Montreal Philadelphia New York City Florida Dallas Columbus Phoenix

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  • Jerome
    December 23, 2012 - 11:40

    As a retired person who’s been an NHL fan for longer than I care to remember, when the lockout was announced, I first felt disappointment, then anger (at no one in particular) and finally, apathy. I’ve been a Centre Ice subscriber for the past three years, but now I’m saving a couple of hundred dollars because of this dispute. Every cloud has a silver lining. As I’ve stated, when this dispute started, I didn’t fall into the camp of the owners or the players. That has changed. I think you hit on part of it in your column with this: “In today's new arenas, players enter and exit the rinks in their Escalades and Navigators through an underground garage.” In other words, they (the players) are so far removed from the fans they purport to be concerned about, I believe they need a wake-up call. When someone of a particular talent doesn’t feel he is getting what he deserves, then he’ll take his talent elsewhere. I say, go find that elsewhere. Players are coming back from Europe in droves recently; maybe it’s because it’s the holiday season, but I believe they have realized just how good they had it in the NHL. An average salary of 2.3 million a year and to look at the expressions of the players standing behind Donald Fehr at his press conferences, you would almost be led to believe they are one paycheque away from food stamps. I’m sure there will be NHL hockey in January, but I hope I’m wrong. The inmates can’t continue to run the asylum.

  • Herry
    December 23, 2012 - 10:40

    so, the lock-out is hurting the economy. we already know that but all the wealthy parties involved don't seem to know that. THEY ARE ALL ID-IOTS !!!!!!

  • Gordon
    December 22, 2012 - 10:08

    I agree it's a problem that is of the League's own making. Bettman was spirited away from the NBA (oh, how they must be relieved) specifically to use his magic to the NHL a lucrative US TV contract, as he had with basketball. A contract, yes (NBC) ... lucrative, not so much. I can imagine how happy the Network is with their hockey programming right now. The CBC probably isn't much happier ... HNIC provides a significant portion of the entire network's ad revenue. You can't make the highbrow programming and kids shows if you have no money, because every one comes at a net loss revenue-wise. That leaves bums in seats paying the league's collective bills. So, let's alienate them too, especially in marginal markets. Good strategy for something our kids can wax nostalgic about; something called hockey played on something called a TV.