When The Game You Love Doesn’t Love You Back


Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Another round of optimism about the prospect of an NHL season crashed and burned yesterday, spectacularly, culminating with Gary Bettman standing behind a podium looking so much like his head might explode that I’m sure there were more than a few front row journalists worried about the stain-free status of their suits.  And then, after making it clear that there’s no NHL hockey coming any time soon, Bettman bobbled away, head still secure, and we, the fans, are left wondering: what’s next?

If you’re like me, every time you watch analysts talk about the “script” this entire ordeal is following, you feel like it’s your own head, not Bettman’s, and your own clothes, not the journalist’s, at risk.  The endless debate on screen and radio about exactly when the eleventh hour is, and about how much posturing is left to do, and the “$3.3 billion pie” is maddening.

And let me tell you why it’s maddening.  It’s maddening because regardless what the NHL and NHLPA says about how concerned they are about the fans of the game, they actually expect both you, dear reader, and me, to be waiting with a fistful of dollars to hand over to them as soon as they save the day and put this sideshow to bed.

Why wouldn’t they?  After 2004/2005’s disaster, we fans were salivating to get the game we love back on the ice.  We had things to look forward to in those days — arguably the highest touted prospect in NHL history was about to make his debut, along with his Russian counter-part and ready-made rival.  There were a set of “new rules” in place to make the game more exciting, rules designed to let the skilled players dazzle us.  So we shelled out the dollars.  What reason does Gary Bettman, and to a lesser extent the NHLPA, have to think it won’t be the same this time around?

I am not sure, at this point, if I should compare us to an abused spouse that continues to cook dinners or to a junkie willing to do anything for his next fix.

Because the NHL and PA are so sure fans are waiting (and more importantly to them, fans’ dollars are waiting), there is an infuriating, one might even say brazen, lack of urgency during these negotiations.  If they actually cared about you, the fan, or were in the least bit worried your dollars weren’t already secure in their pockets, do you really think we’d be in this situation right now?


And because it’s unlikely either side is interested in my favorite proposal (locking Bettman and Fehr into a room without food and water until a deal is signed), perhaps it’s time for fans to take matters into our own hands.  Perhaps it’s time for us to take a long look in the mirror and see that we are just as responsible for this mess as they are.  We, the fans, out of love for the game, have enabled them.  We’ve shown them time and time again that our support is unconditional.

Imagine you’re sitting in your favorite restaurant, where you eat every day, and you’ve just ordered your favorite item on the menu.  Now imagine the waiter comes and, instead of delivering your meal, informs you that they’re having a little trouble in the kitchen deciding on how to divvy up the money you’ll be paying, but your meal will be out as soon as the matter is settled.  Now imagine and hour goes by, and then two hours, and then four hours.  Would you return to that restaurant tomorrow?  What if this has happened three times in your last eighteen visits?

Make no mistake, it is your money the NHL and PA are fighting over.  They are not fighting over the owners’ money, and they’re not fighting over the players’ money – they’re fighting over your money, and my money.  We, the fans, however indirectly, pay for this game.  We pay for it by buying tickets, by buying merchandise, and by buying products advertised on NHL programming.

I, for one, will always love this game unconditionally.  But I will no longer unconditionally pay for it.  If the NHL wants my dollars, they should know I expect an improvement in service.

I wish there existed such a thing as an NHLFA (Fans Association), but alas, there does not.  Fans are sadly not organized in the way the NHL and NHLPA are, which puts us at a constant disadvantage, and leaves us generally frustrated when negotiations roll around.   So I can only make proposals that I, myself, can stick to, and hope that somewhere out there other fans are doing the same.

And my personal proposal, to myself, is this: If there is no agreement in place by January 1, I will spend exactly zero dollars on NHL programming and merchandise this year.  I will not be purchasing any games packages, I won’t be buying the Tampa Bay Lightning hat I’ve been planning to get, nor any jerseys, sweaters, et cetera.  I will watch games provided by my current cable package, or listen to them on the radio, and I’ll watch game highlights, and follow NHL news as fervently as ever.  But I will spend no money in any direct way on NHL products.

I’m taking myself out of their $3.3 billion pie.

In the event that the season is cancelled, I propose to myself, and in fact, I propose that all of us, get drastic.  If there is no 2012/2013 season, not only will I spent not a single dollar on NHL products in 2013/2014, but I will also keep careful track of NHL sponsors and make sure none of my dollars are going to them either.  This, of course, will entail considerable personal sacrifice, but rest assured, I love hockey more than I love the brand of tires on my car or my favorite brand of footwear.

You might ask, “If you love hockey so much, why would you actively try to hurt it?”  And to that, I say, I’m a believer in tough love.  I think that if the NHL comes out of this circus without feeling significant financial consequences, there’s nothing to keep it from happening again when the next CBA negotiations roll around.

Don’t get me wrong – the amount of money I spend on the NHL every year is obviously negligible to them.  But, as the players are so fond of saying, there is a principle at play here.

I don’t like being taken for granted.  I don’t like listening to Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr pay me lip service.  They mention “the fans” every time they’re behind a podium, yet it’s obvious that both sides have already tallied my money, and your money, into their potential “pie.” But if either side really cared about “the fans”, they’d show it not by mentioning us while looking at us through a camera, but by having an actual sense of urgency about these negotiations.  Instead, like my allegorical restaurant staff, they’re fighting over our money while within earshot of us.  And they’re refusing to provide the service they assume we’ll pay for.

If we fans want to be heard, we have to realize that our wallets do the only talking the NHL is interested in.  And we have to take some responsibility for the terrible precedent we set in 2005 when we all flocked back to the game we love, for love, and we let bygones be bygones.  As hard as it is to imagine, we are part of this process.  We are every bit as much a party to this as the NHL and the PA.  But we don’t have a spot at the table.  What we do have is control over how we spend our money, and how much money we spend, and we can choose who gets that money.

So from now on, every time you think angrily about how we wouldn’t be in this mess if the owners had just exercised a little self-control when signing the contracts they’re now fighting about, I suggest you think about your own level of self-control.  Think about how we also, perhaps, wouldn’t be in this mess had you, and I, exercised a little self-control in back in 2005.

Here’s what I want.  Whenever the next CBA negotiations roll around, be that in 2018 (like the players want), or in 2023 (like the owners want), I want them to think back to 2012/2013 and remember what a dark time that was.  I want them to remember it wasn’t without consequence.  Finally, I want them to realize that the fans of this game love it unconditionally, and will always love it, but we’re not going to enable it.  I want them to know, to really know, my love is free, but they’re going to have to earn my money.