The First in a Hopefully Brief Series: “Lockout Thoughts”

Should the fans walk out on the NHL if the owners and the Players Association fail to come to an agreement in time for the start of the season? Is “maybe” an acceptable answer?

Scott Burnside wrote a strong article on this a couple of days ago and his answer is unequivocally “yes.” But is it really that easy? Yes, hockey team owners make money through every kind of fan consumerism imaginable. They make money when we the fans buy tickets to the games, they make money when we buy food and drink at the games, they make money when we buy officially licensed merchandise, they make money when you go to the team’s website and click on outgoing links, they make money when we watch the games on TV (well especially those who are Nielson households but that’s a story for another time), they make money when we listen on the radio. If we want to look even more critically, they make money when they sponsor a charity event, they make money when their players agree to sign autographs, they make money when you buy things from their sponsors, they make money when other teams make money. Professional sports ownership has to be the pinnacle of capitalism, the owners don’t need to do anything aside from write checks to the players (the workers) and provide facilities (the means of production) after that they can just sit back and watch the money come in.

It’s not right and it’s not fair for the NHL owners to demand what they have demanded in their proposed new CBA. It isn’t fair to the players, it isn’t fair to the fans, and it simply is bad business sense—what happens if the NHL does lockout and the sponsors who are dishing out hundreds of millions of dollars annually suddenly start to disappear? All of a sudden the league won’t have “billionaires arguing with millionaires” as to how to divide up $3.3 billion in revenues, that number will continue to dwindle back down to pre-’05 levels and then nobody will be happy.

With all that said, there are things that the owners do need to change and have a right to change as we move toward another collective bargaining agreement. The owners currently pay a disproportionately high amount of “hockey-related” revenue into player salaries (57%, compared to 48% in the NFL, and remember, NFL teams consist of 54 players instead of 23 in the NHL). Further, “hockey-related revenues” is an incredibly broad term that enables large market owners to retain millions in profits while small-market owners barely possess the money assets to meet cap compliancy.

Next week, the NHLPA is finally expected to make their counter-proposal to the owners. Of course they’re going to have lots to say and I don’t think that they will be intimidated into asking for anything less than what they truly believe they deserve. They’re going to want to keep the current revenue sharing agreement, at least as far as the salary cap is concerned, and they will more than likely demand an increase in sharing when it comes to specific player jersey and shirt sales. They’re going to demand better healthcare and improved safety features in the game (which they ought to get). Mark my words, when the proposal comes out, everyone, from Gary Bettman through the professional media and every wannabe on the Internet (you know, like me) will conclude that the lockout is going to happen. And maybe it will, but again, are you really going to turn away from the game you love?

Maybe, as Burnside says, the owners don’t deserve fans like us. That does not mean I’m going to stop watching hockey, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop cheering for the Penguins. To me, watching hockey is the ultimate cathartic experience. Beyond that I want to watch the PITTSBURGH PENGUINS play hockey. I love the sport in general and I have a lot of respect for many teams and players across different leagues all around the world, but to me this is very specifically about the world’s best hockey players, the 30 teams in the NHL and specifically the Black and Vegas Gold.

A lot can happen between now and September 15. This is not a post to say that we as fans should give up now and resign ourselves to another year without the NHL; this is a post expressing love and passion for the game. And when I say “the game” I mean the NHL, I don’t want to watch career minor-leaguers and NHL has-bins in the KHL, I don’t want to watch the “next generation of superstars” score 6 goals a game against a goalie with braces as is the CHL. I want to watch the world’s greatest players do battle against one another. I want to see Sid and Geno go head-to-head for the Art Ross, I want to feel the hate of another Pens-Flyers playoff series, I want to live and die with every MAF save, I want to see Neal go for 50 and Letang emerge as a Norris Trophy finalist. I want to see the emergence of new heroes and one last ride for the last of the league’s legends. I want to see the victory lap with the Stanley Cup, I want to get all worked up when Keith Jones or Mike Milbury say something moronic. These aren’t things that you can get just watching any hockey, these are the things that define the NHL, and more importantly the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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