Gordon: Ultimately, the fans have the power in NHL money fight

It shouldn’t have come to this. Thursday is supposed to be the start of another National Hockey League season, a day most ardent hockey fans look forward to all summer long. The Ottawa Senators should be at the Bell Centre taking their morning skate, then heading back to the hotel to rest up for their season opener against their second-most-hated division rival, the Montreal Canadiens.

Gordon: Ultimately, the fans have the power in NHL money fight
Photo by Jean Levac, Ottawa Citizen.

It shouldn’t have come to this.

Thursday is supposed to be the start of another National Hockey League season, a day most ardent hockey fans look forward to all summer long.

The Ottawa Senators should be at the Bell Centre taking their morning skate, then heading back to the hotel to rest up for their season opener against their second-most-hated division rival, the Montreal Canadiens.

Our writers should be there, keeping you up-to-date on who will be getting a shot on the top line, who will be playing alongside Erik Karlsson to start the season, who won the backup job in net.

Arena staff should be preparing the ice and the seats and the concessions and the parking lots to welcome thousands of spectators — paying customers — for the first of 41 home games

Sports bars should be turning a nice profit from those who decided to take in opening night with a pint and some friends.

Poolies should be checking web sites later in the night to see what kind of start their favourite players, or at least the ones they think will be most productive this year, got off to.

Instead, NHL.com informs us: “No games scheduled for today.” Over at ESPN, evidence of what should have been.

Senators at Canadiens. Cancelled.

Bruins at Flyers. Cancelled.

Canucks at Flames. Cancelled.

Blues at Avalanche. Cancelled.

It shouldn’t have come to this.

Ever since talk of a lockout started picking up steam this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about moral hazard. The term had a resurgence of sorts thanks to the global economic meltdown and the multibillion-dollar bank and auto industry bailouts that followed.

If you agree to bail the companies out, critics argue, what’s their incentive to be careful with other people’s money and goodwill?

Which brings me back to the NHL. On October 8, 2005, my now-wife and I attended the first Senators home game after the lockout that cost the league the previous season. God we missed hockey, and we were thrilled to have it back.

The NHL painted “Thank You Fans” on the ice at rinks around the league and handed out miniature Stanley Cup replicas to everyone in attendance. Dominik Hasek pitched a shutout in a 5-0 win and everyone went home happy.

Hockey fans, me included, gave the NHL a pass. I think everyone knew that, at the time, the business side of the game was completely unsustainable. I mean, $9 million per season for Bobby Holik, right?

The collective bargaining agreement that brought an end to the first of what is now two lockouts in the past decade was supposed to fix things. Players agreed to massive salary rollbacks and a cap, league commissioner Gary Bettman made the dubious suggestion that ticket prices could come down as a result, and we all thought, ‘phew, at least we won’t have to go through that again.’

The NHL has seen massive revenue growth since. It has never been more popular.

Yet here we are, and it shouldn’t have come to this.

Many fans, maybe even you, are feeling powerless today.

When asked in August about how badly another lockout would damage the league, Bettman responded: “We recovered last time because we have the world’s greatest fans.”

I wrote a series of tweets after reading that, one of which wound up in a viral video (more than a million views) by Finnish video editor Janne Makkonen protesting the lockout. I said it once and I’ll say it again: Ultimately, fans have the power.

They’ll realize it when they stop pretending the NHL cares any more about them than Starbucks does about coffee enthusiasts, or IKEA does about students who need furniture, or studio executives who greenlit any recent Adam Sandler movie do about morons.

If your favourite donut shop suddenly started putting cilantro in your favourite donut, would you continue to buy it? You could talk to the manager, tell him that you don’t think cilantro and chocolate go together, but what if he didn’t listen? Maybe you would take your donut money elsewhere for a while.

Fans will realize they have the power when they acknowledge what the NHL knows already: This is all about money. And fans have the money the league wants.

You could argue moral hazard has done its job with Major League Baseball, which is well into the first round of playoff games while darkened hockey rinks dot the sports landscape.

After a series of disputes culminated in the players’ strike that cancelled the 1994 World Series, fans finally took their donut money elsewhere. According to a USA Today report written in 2004, marking the 10-year anniversary of one of baseball’s darkest periods, average attendance still hadn’t returned to pre-strike levels. 10 years later.

Commissioner Bud Selig told the newspaper that the greatest lesson he’d learned since was “how tough it was bringing the sport back. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I hope the lesson learned by all parties is that we need to solve our problems quietly and sensibly. Our fans don’t want to hear about this from either side.”

The NHL and its players still have time to avoid a similar disaster. If there are no games in October and November, it’ll sting, but it won’t be the end of the world. Once the Winter Classic and the entire season are put in jeopardy, fans will have to make a choice.

Will they stay quiet while their favourite league torches another campaign? Will they flock back whenever their teams do and say, “yes, your trinkets and your lovely messages painted on the ice are enough.”

Or will they say “never again,” and send a real message with their wallets?

It shouldn’t have come to this.

James Gordon is the Ottawa Citizen’s sports editor.

Twitter.com/SensReporter

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