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NHL, Players Association reach settlement


Published: Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 09:01


Graphic by Emily Garner/The Gateway

The announcement of the NHL and the Players Association reaching an agreement to end the lockout in the early hours of Jan. 6 came with quite a few sighs of relief.  It also came with a lot of fists clenched in frustration.

The problem is, none of us knows exactly where to direct that frustration.  While it’s undeniable that some of the frustration will be pointed towards Commissioner Gary Bettman (who gets booed at arenas across the league), the rest is not as clear.

Whenever any sport goes through a lockout, or a strike, it comes down to millionaires versus billionaires.  The easy target is owners and the league.

Their bank accounts are upwards of nine or 10 digits.  It’s hard for hockey fans to feel sorry for the super rich who control our favorite teams.

But at the same time, pro hockey players still make a significant amount of money and live a lifestyle none of us can identify with.  
Regardless, the players will probably be forgiven long before the league and the owners.  They’re the ones who score the goals, make the saves and create the plays that make us stand up and cheer.

Eight years ago, after the last lockout, teams painted the words ‘Thank You Fans’ near the blue lines at each arena.  This year some teams are offering free items at their concession and merchandise stands, or giving away discounts on tickets.

But however the league and the players association chooses to make an act of contrition, will anyone care?  When all of this mess started, we heard that the reason the lockout would go on for a while was because the fans were so passionate.

The league, we were told, was in a position of power because no matter how long the lockout lasted, the fans would come back just as they had before.

And that’s probably true.  You can bet when the Penguins start the season in Philadelphia this Saturday, I’ll have the NHL Center Ice package purchased and be ready to go.

Fans like me across America and Canada will do the same.  We have that passion the media told us would get us in trouble.

So yes, we’re back, just as predicted.  But I worry about the people around me.

When we have a passion, we tend to get drawn in regardless of what that passion is.  My friends have become marginal hockey fans because of me.

They would be unaware of the intensity and excitement of the playoffs if we hadn’t watched a few games together.  Like most Omahans, they’re more into football and college basketball.

But ever since they experienced the playoffs for the first time, things haven’t been quite the same.  Now they send me unexpected text messages about regular season games in mid-February.

These are the people the league and the players’ association are alienating.  The sport simply can’t stop shooting itself in the foot.

Three work stoppages since 1994 have significantly decreased the number of marginal fans each time.  
It’s also caused less and less advertisers and television networks to take hockey seriously.

Wednesday nights on ESPN used to be national hockey night.  
But it’s been a decade plus since anyone has seen a hockey game on the worldwide leader in sports.

How does the league get fans back when it alienates them and alienates the businesses that provide access to the sport?  
If I had the decision-making power over signing a contract with the league, I’d certainly think twice.

Why should I spend money on a sport that disappears every six years?  It comes down to this – both sides share the blame in the decline of the league.

This isn’t the first time; it isn’t even the second time. It’s the third time we’ve had to deal with a lockout in our lifetimes.

Having a great playoff season this spring isn’t going to solve it this time.

  The most recent contract guarantees 10 years of a collective bargaining agreement, with an option to opt out after eight years.

But there can be no opting out.  There can be no more stoppages, no more lockouts, no more strikes for at least 50 years.

The only way the sport can win is by playing and playing and playing.  
Words painted on the ice or a free hot dog at the concession stand offer only a hollow understanding of how frustrated people are.

The only thing that makes up for lost time is time on the ice.  
It worries me that the league thinks giving us some sort of break on tickets, merchandise and concessions will matter.

It’s not about the money.  It’s much simpler than that.

Fans will get back to being fans when hockey gets back to being hockey.

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