So the NHL is back. Well isn’t that just wonderful. And like many abusive relationships, the fans will come crawling back thinking this time it will be different. The winner: the NHL. The losers: the fans. Is that how it’s going to be?
Nothing would make me happier than seeing fans finally stand up for themselves and boycott the balance of this season. Empty arenas are the only way to get the message across to the NHL, team owners and players that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated. If nothing else, tickets should be reduced to half-price to show appreciation to the fans that have remained loyal. But that won’t happen. We all know how this will end. The fans will go back to them regardless. Well, all but this fan.
Like most Canadian boys, I grew up playing hockey both on the ice and on our neighbourhood streets, instilling in me a love for the game that has stayed with me to this day. It’s that same love for the game that will compel most fans to give the NHL their immediate forgiveness. While I wish that were not the case, I cannot hold it against them. If you’re happy that the NHL is back so that you can once again watch the game you love, well then I’m happy that you’re happy, but my feelings on the matter remain unchanged.
Maybe it’s the game that has changed, or maybe it’s me that has changed, but for whatever the reason, I can no longer hold the NHL on the pedestal I once did. It has become all too clear that for the NHL, “the love of the game” has been replaced with “the love of money”. This can also be said for most professional sports leagues, where salaries have gotten so extraordinarily out of hand that most professional athletes will make more in one season than we will in multiple lifetimes.
While professional hockey players may not even be at the top of the list of highest paid athletes, they do quite well for themselves. There’s no hardship there, there’s no need to feel sorry for them. Think about how hard you work at your job to make ends meet. Think about how much time you must put in at work to save enough money to buy your son or daughter a jersey with their favourite player's name and number on it, or buy tickets to take your family to a game. Think of that feeling of excitement that permeates through your body when you enter the arena and see the ice for the first time. For the average fan taking home an average salary, they’re lucky if they can attend maybe one game per season, if that. That’s the reality of the average fan. That is precisely why I have a hard time accepting the fact that a third line winger who gets maybe seven shifts a game is making more money sitting there on the bench during one 60 minute game than we fans will make in an entire year. And still, they are not satisfied? Is what they do for a living really that much more important than what we do for a living, to justify that degree of disparity?
And who pays these ridiculous salaries? We do, the fans. Our love of the game blinds us from reality, and we gladly shell out hundreds if not thousands of dollars year after year for tickets and team apparel without even a second thought. Our love of the game keeps us coming back, and the NHL knows that. They feed on that, but at the same time, they also know we are a limited resource. They know there is only so much money they can bleed from us, which is why they have turned their focus to corporate season tickets and private boxes.
Look at the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Air Canada Centre for example. The majority of the lower bowl is sold out before the season even begins, but not because of the fans. Only the upper bowl is really open to average fans, the lower bowl is for the corporations, those that have the deeper pockets capable of spending over $250 per ticket and supporting the NHL for years to come. Why have the iconic Maple Leafs not made a greater effort over these past few decades to secure a team capable of winning the Stanley Cup? Simple… because they don’t have to. The seats are filled for each and every game, and team apparel is flying off the shelves, regardless of the quality of the team. To spend more for higher quality talent would be unnecessary and foolish. The goal isn't to win the Stanley Cup, it's to maximize profits, and they’re sure doing an excellent job of that.
For the first five minutes of each period, the lower level seats sit empty, as the corporate elite indulge themselves on over-priced food and drinks, expanding their range of spending far beyond merely the cost of the seats. Fans may not be able to afford the price of the food and drinks, but those corporations sure can, especially when they are trying to impress. That’s where the profit is to be made. The teams and NHL know it. Those corporations are the future, not us fans. Fans are secondary. Fans are only needed to buy licensed merchandise; we’re not needed at the games anymore. We’re encouraged to watch Hockey Night in Canada at home, while we wear our favourite team’s third jerseys, and drink from our team logo mug.
Why else would the league expand to unlikely markets in the southern United States that leave us scratching our heads? It’s not because there is a huge demand for ice-based sports down there. Not too many kids in Phoenix grow up with a love for the game of hockey, or spend their winters playing shinny on the local pond. In fact, they don’t even call it hockey. They call it “Ice Hockey”, as though the concept of ice is somewhat foreign to them, and requires clarification. Cities such as this to the NHL are nothing more than an untapped market where they can create a team, promote the sport in order to sell tickets and merchandise, make as much money as they can, and as soon as the novelty wears off, they can move the team elsewhere and start the cycle all over again. No thought is given to the watering down of talent as the league expands to more and more teams. The NHL is now filled with mediocre players that never would have made the cut 20 years ago, but with more teams comes more money. Financially, the NHL is far better off placing new teams in the population rich United States rather than Canada, so even though there is undeniable demand in Canada for more teams (Hamilton immediately comes to mind), and even though the majority of the die-hard hockey fans live north of the border, it doesn’t matter. The fans don’t matter. Money matters. The NHL is a business first and foremost.
We’ve had to endure several months of listening to millionaires and billionaires negotiate over who gets what share of the profits. We fans don’t care how you guys divide the profits, as long as you put a decent product on the ice for our enjoyment, and feed our love of the game, we’re happy. But they didn’t do that. They could have kept playing through their ongoing negotiations, but they didn’t. Rather than watching nightly highlight reels on TSN or ESPN, we’ve been forced to watch Gary Bettman and various players dressed in suits walk in, out, and around building entrances, on their way to and from business meetings and contract negotiations. I can’t help but think something has been lost in all of this, the image of professional hockey tarnished. What happened to the game I love?
As I stand back now and try my best to look at it objectively, I guess I can’t blame the NHL. I can’t blame the owners. I can’t blame the players. Hockey is a business before all else. Hockey, like most businesses, is all about money. In business, money is everything. I get that. At least at that level, the idealistic concept of “the love of the game” died a long time ago. The charade is over, and I suppose for the first time, I’ve allowed myself to see the business of hockey as it really is. Now they’re back, their secret exposed, and they expect us to act like nothing ever happened. Well I can’t do that.
I’m not suggesting you all boycott the NHL. I’m not suggesting you immediately forgive the NHL. Really, I’m not suggesting anything at all. Do whatever feels right for you, and whatever that is, I’ll respect that. As odd as it may sound, I was actually rooting for the cancellation of the entire season out of spite, and was strangely disappointed to hear a deal had been struck. Or maybe I was more disappointed because now that a deal is in place, everyone is giving each other high-fives, thinking everything can finally get back to normal. It all seems a little too easy. What is normal? Is normal really such a great thing?