Hockey Is Back … But It Never Really Left

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On Jan. 7th, teams from around the NHL called fans, media and anyone else who would listen to announce that a 2012-2013 season would be played. Each team would play an abbreviated 48-game regular season (as opposed to the standard 82 games) leading up to the playoffs. Delaying the start of the season was a dangerous move for a league that has had three lockouts under the current commissioner (Gary Bettman) alone. The 1994-1995 season was shortened to 48 games due to a labor dispute and the 2004-2005 season was canceled completely.

Was it Worth It?

Hockey owners and players, at least at the NHL level, seemed to forget that their sport doesn’t have the television revenue or widespread popularity of baseball or American football. The NHL and NHLPA argued endlessly over minutiae while fans started to wonder if it was all really worth it. That’s just the kind of thinking this league can’t afford. Players and executives from smaller non-traditional markets know this. Nashville Predators general manager David Poile began his press conference with an apology to fans. The good news? The new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) will last a decade.

Where’s the Season?

September is usually an exciting month for hockey fans. News of prospects and training camp is released, pre-season games are scheduled and anticipation for opening night grows. But in 2012, September was a month of uncertainty. So were October, November and December. It was starting to look like the NHL might not play at all. Players who were anxious to record some playing time were heading to Europe or Russia to play. Some players, those with two-way contracts, went to the AHL— the highest developmental league in North American hockey.

Fans really anxious for a fix could still see pro hockey. They could go to AHL games or ECHL (another developmental league, one step lower) contests for a fraction of the cost of the NHL experience. Sure, the players weren’t quite as good, but the beer was cold, the mascot was funny and occasionally a fight broke out. Parking was certainly less expensive and probably a lot easier.

Hockey is Hockey

So what if the building was smaller and the merchandise selection less exciting? Hockey was happening. Buildings were full of the same passionate fans. They were just cheering for a different team. Those who didn’t have minor league teams nearby could try college games. The Frozen Four (annual NCAA tournament) games are tremendously competitive and exciting, so too are regular season college bouts.

When was the last time you had seats on the glass at an NHL game? They’re prohibitively expensive. They’re not the best seats in the house to objectively see the entire game and analyze the action, but they are exciting. College and minor league venues offer glass seats at a reasonable rate.

Fans Keep it Going

How about the last time you saw a great big barbeque pre and post game in the parking lot of an arena? I remember a very welcoming one taking place many times a season at a now-defunct ECHL team. The fans were friendly, welcoming and protective of their team. They brought new faces to the game one-by-one to build a bigger fan base. NHL teams are dreaming of that sort of fan dedication right now, but with their track record, it’ll take some time and effort to rebuild the trust of their fan base.

So maybe you don’t have to boycott the NHL, it’s a great time after all, but don’t forget about the little guys. They’re working hard, and they’d love to see you in the stands.

Tell the Truth

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