If the NHL has a lockout addiction problem – and evidently it does – then hockey fans are the enablers.
Lockout after lockout, fans storm back in droves, at least in this country. It’s the fan who buys the tickets to games, the fan who pays outrageous concession prices and the fan who supports the corporate sponsors who back the teams.
When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the league was able to survive the lost season of 2004-05, because hockey has “the best fans in the world,” he’s really saying they’re dumb enough to keep coming back for more.
Ross Couchman, a retired civil servant in Ottawa’s east end, is one hockey fan who finds it easy to draw a line in the sand and say: “Enough is enough.”
Couchman (can you think of a better name for a sports fan?) withdrew his hockey affections after the 2004-05 lockout, breaking off what had been a lifelong love affair with the game. This time, he vows he won’t be back at all if the NHL stops play for an extended period due to the lockout launched on the weekend.
” My proof is that it took me three years after the last lockout to care one iota, to watch a game, to read media accounts or watch Sportscentre highlights,” Couchman wrote in an email, which led to a discussion over the phone.
“I have come back to the point of following the game (mostly the Sens) to the point of reading the Citizen sports pages, watching highlights, and podcasting the HNIC Hot Stove while spending three months every winter in Mexico. I even meet other Canadian and American friends at a restaurant in Mexico to watch the occasional game on TSN, which they get on their satellite. That will end.”
Couchman’s over-under date for considering this to be an “extended” lockout is Christmas. By then, the NHL would have to considered a modified, compromised, shrunken schedule. Not good enough, in one fan’s view.
Couchman’s frustration is understandable. No professional sport shuts down more frequently than the NHL, now starting it’s fourth lockout since 1992. In that time span, the NHL has missed 1,698 games due to labour issues, compared to 938 for major league baseball, 788 for the NBA and a big fat zero for the most popular league in North America, the NFL.
The meter is about to run again, adding to hockey’s 1,698 total as the NHL prepares to interrupt a schedule that is supposed to begin on Oct. 11.
Considering the two sides remain deeply entrenched, with players wanting the NHL to adopt revenue sharing while the league advocates clawing back player salaries, this could take a while to resolve. In the meantime Couchman will spend his time avoiding lockout stories (with the possible exception of this one), and will watch his two teenage nephews play minor hockey in Leitrim.
It’s those kids that have his sympathy.
“They’re not old and jaded like me,” says Couchman, who spent most of his career with Revenue Canada. “They have a passion for hockey, and that is as it should be.”
That youthful loyalty to the NHL is what spurred Couchman to come back to watching games after his self-imposed three year exile, although to this day he has not attended a post lockout game at Scotiabank Place. Still, he heard his nephews talking about who was hot and who was not, and ultimately he switched on the television.
That childhood enthusiasm takes Couchman back to his own boyhood in Dunnville, southwestern Ontario, and times when he and a buddy would sneak into Civic Stadium (before it became Ivor Wynne) to watch CFL Hamilton Tiger-Cats games. A certain gate had just enough of a gap for lean kids to slip through.
Two hour trips to Toronto to watch NHL games at Maple Leaf Gardens were a rare treat.
Forty years later, Couchman wonders how a family of four can afford to attend NHL games in Canada, considering the price of tickets, parking, food and drink.
Through it all, Canadian hockey fans have been remarkably lockout-proof. Couchman doesn’t doubt many will return this time, too, although they won’t have revamped rules and enforcement to showcase hockey’s speed and skill that was such a big part of the 2005 NHL relaunch.
Despite the resilience, Couchman believes a certain fan erosion takes place with each stoppage, chipping away at the game’s foundation of followers. Like the fighter that takes one too many blows to the head, league management can’t be sure when the average fan will say, “no mas.”
Couchman, who hears that expression a lot during seasonal trips to Porta Vallarta, counts himself as one the NHL let get away. For good, this time, if the lockout lingers.
“I will go to Mexico,” Couchman says, “and I will cease to care.”