Through posturing and petulance, fans of the NHL continue to suffer

Bruce Bennett

Fans are growing weary of the continued public relations battle taking place between the NHL and NHLPA.

It was early November when the NHL announced its cancellation of the 2013 Winter Classic. What normally is considered the pinnacle of the regular season; a heartwarming celebration of the game has been scrapped, stored away for a year as boardrooms filled with petulant children squabble over how best to line their pockets with billions of dollars invested by fans and league sponsors.

Sadly, the most watched game on the NHL calendar will be delayed for an entire year. Gone too are the heaps of cash (read: revenue) which the event generates for the league. While fans of the game won't be privy to a grand spectacle between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs -- or the four weeks of marvellously produced 24/7 HBO coverage that precedes it -- the loss of this year's Winter Classic isn't even the toughest piece of news that we've endured this month.

November 23, 2012 marked not only Black Friday in the United States, but also what was largely speculated to be the official start to the NHL's 2012-13 calendar, showcasing a marquee midday tilt between the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. Though the season would have been a truncated version of that which commonly features 82 games, a late November start would have still abled teams to play as close to a full season as one could hope. Instead, talks have continued to stall, the rhetoric from both camps place blame on their counterparts, and anger -- or in some cases apathy -- from fans intensifies to dour levels.

Resentment has been festering inside of fans for quite some time now, a pit of fury stemming from the panoply of follies this whole labour dispute has forced us to endure. Whether cursing the NHL's initial offer to the union in August or berating the PA's stall tactics in recent negotiations, we have endured as much as we can take. To make matters worse, both the owners and the PA understand that we're outraged and they couldn't care less. This is a business, after all. The NHL's raison d'être is to create revenue above all else. As talks have spiralled into a sadistic game of dick measuring opposed to efforts in finding common ground, it's becoming more and more difficult to look at this dispute through the daily meanderings and say "I still give a fuck".

***

The NHL, in and of itself, is a complete train wreck from a financial standpoint. Much like the sad clown that can't help but be funny, blundering NHL owners have seemingly learned nothing from the 2005 lockout. Their stance, in a nutshell, is that they and their General Managers can't be relied upon to show fiscal restraint, therefore requiring handouts from the players portion of revenues to compensate for their erratic spending. That said, salaries have spiralled out of control and equal blame falls on the players and their agents who leverage teams against each other in order to make the biggest buck. The posturing from hardliners is the same we saw eight years ago. Representatives from both parties claim their "significantly altered" offers to be fair and balanced, despite being near carbon copies of those brought forth a month ago. Where they fall short in their efforts is thinking that fans actually believe they're anything more than a bunch of pandering dipshits. A note to both parties: we're way past trying to make sense of this mess you're in and we loathe you all equally. Yet at days end, we are still forced to put up with the PR leaks and the media scrums in which nothing important is ever divulged, all while ingesting the shit sandwich being fed to us and trying our best to call it ice cream.

And why? Simply put, because we're the greatest fans in the world. Not to be boastful, but there's really something to be said about a fan base who is deprived of their favourite sport for an entire year, yet responds by aiding the NHL in shattering annual revenue projections for almost a decade. The most depressing aspect of the latest lockout isn't that the owners and the union are using us as a bartering chip because their numbers show the league will continue to grow at an exponential level. Rather, it's that we find ourselves in this position by doing all the right things; buying merchandise, attending games for a league that relies on gate revenues and in some markets watching games on Pay Per View. Yet we're rewarded with the knowledge that once the dust settles on this labour crisis, we have to drag our limp carcasses back to the hands that abuse us in order to watch the best players in the world ply their craft.

Not only are we the greatest fans in the world, but also the greatest enablers that sport has to offer, albeit against our will. Though the bitter lockout trudges on, at some point it will end. Damage will be felt by front offices across the NHL, but one can hardly believe these difficulties to be anything more than ephemeral. Here in the capital of Manitoba, it's a farce to consider that True North Sports and Entertainment will suffer any fan push back at all. And therein lies the rub.

Five weeks after resuming play, our amnesia dust will have fully kicked in to the point where the past four months will be nothing more than an afterthought. We need look no further than the wake of 2005 -- a time when the league started collecting our hard earned cash hand over fist -- as proof this will likely happen again. This notion is especially prevalent in Canadian markets, in cities from which the majority of the leagues revenue is produced.

While it's true that fans are lemmings, it does not mean they are vapidly unintelligent. It doesn't take Admiral Ackbar to diagnose the trap we find ourselves in. Frustrated as we may be, we will find subtle ways to stick it to the owners, whether it be cutting back on merchandise or concessions, the wallets we carry on game day will be noticeably lighter than in years past. But there's no denying that we'll be back; we're far too invested not to be. And though the past four months without hockey have gutted us time and time again, there's nothing more devastating than that.

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