Despite having all summer to prepare for the dreaded "L-word", I recently realized that a lockout is a very distinct possibility in just over a month. After finally having the NHL return to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence, and having the Jets fly once again in the River City, there appears to be a very good chance that the MTS Centre will be dark this fall. And I am quite distraught about this.
The previous lockout in 2004-05 didn't really matter to most of us here in Winnipeg, as we obviously didn't have our own franchise in the NHL at that time. In fact, the lockout was a nice treat for us here in the 'Peg, as Manitoba Moose fans had the pleasure of watching future Canucks stars Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa and Alexandre Burrows don the antlers for pretty much the full season. The NHL's loss was the AHL's gain.
But things are different now. After that 15-year absence, we have witnessed the return of the NHL to our fair city. And we loved it. We couldn't get enough. We were loud, we were proud and we were pumped to be back in the big leagues. We cheered our heads off for Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler and co. all season. And now you're telling me that we might not have hockey this fall? Oh well, at least we will have the Manitoba Moos.... oh, crap. We don't have them anymore. So, you are telling me that there will no professional hockey in Winnipeg this season if the owners lock the players out? What are we, as Winnipeg Jets fans, supposed to do?
Scott Burnside's piece on ESPN, titled Fans should bolt if CBA halts season, suggests that the fans should stay away from the game when the owners finally agree to end to lockout. He makes some valid points, and I suppose the suggestion makes a bit of sense. Unfortunately, I don't think us fans here in Winnipeg have that ability. We aren't mad at Mark Chipman and David Thompson. We are still madly in love with the saviors of NHL hockey in this city, and it obviously isn't their fault that we are in this predicament. I have to believe that they are too new to the group of owners to have had a chance to make any impact at board meetings, so they get a pass from me.
Besides, what are we going to do? Stay home and not fill the MTS Centre? I suppose we could, but I have to figure that not many people would do so while still paying for their tickets. And I certainly don't think that anyone will cancel their tickets in protest. After all, we have 8,000 people paying $100 a year to sit on a waiting list for season-tickets here in Winnipeg, and though 2,500 spots on that waiting list opened up the other day, that means that 5,500 remained on the list (over 70%). And only 128 season tickets opened up. With demand for tickets still ridiculously high, I for one won't be giving up my share of season tickets in an attempt to prove a point.
Speaking of season tickets, what the heck am I supposed to do with our season ticket draft? If you weren't previously aware, my wife and I are part of a group of nine that share five season tickets. We haven't done our draft yet, and we honestly don't have any plans to do so any time soon. Last season, one of the major highlights of our entire season was the draft that our group did. And not having that to look forward to is pretty sad. I know that the Canucks game was one of the ones high on my list, but who knows? We may have to Skype in a few people in an emergency when the season actually starts. That just isn't as much fun, and the potential lockout is completely to blame for this.
So, if the owners do lockout the players and the MTS Centre is dark this winter, what are hockey fans in Winnipeg supposed to do? Well, I for one asked for and received a pre-order for NHL 13 (PS3) for my birthday, so the Winnipeg Jets will be skating in my basement at the very least. That will likely be the only "professional" hockey that takes place around these parts. I do suppose that the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL) could help fill the void if need be, and the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL are only a few hours away. Plus, there are some good movies coming out this winter... Wow, I'm really grasping at straws here.
I did pose the question to Twitter yesterday, and one of the most popular answers of my Winnipeg followers was to fully invest in NFL football. Dropping NHL Centre Ice for the NFL Sunday Ticket, dropping hockey fantasy drafts for football ones, trade in the NHL Jets for the NFL Jets... well, maybe not that last one. When it comes to Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, I'm not sure which QB I dislike more. I could totally see this happening for myself, and it is kind of alarming how easy it would be for a big hockey fan like me to drop hockey and focus on something else.
This is what the NHL owners need to worry about, since it's their idea to lock out the players. How many fans across North America, especially those who aren't diehards like myself, is the league willing to lose? If the game of hockey is out of sight, it is definitely out of mind to millions and millions of sports fans. People will find something else to do, and the NFL is an easy addiction to latch on to. As Burnside suggested, I could see a few markets rewarding their owners with empty seats when they return, but that is unlikely to happen here in Winnipeg. We'll be drawn back as soon as the lights are turned back on and the season commences. We've had a taste of the return of the NHL, and we really like it and we never want to lose it again. But we'll find something to do while we patiently wait for the lockout, if it starts, to end.