The National Hockey League (NHL) has finally made a celebratory return. A 103-day lockout has ceased, leaving disgruntled fans to doubt that their loyal respect for the game is shared amongst wealthy players and owners. Throughout those long days of fiscal negotiations, as fans continually monitored the news for glimpses of hope, a charade was played out in their minds akin to a circus show with Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr as the ringleaders.
The drama included finger pointing, name-calling, exasperated press conferences, and Gary Bettman’s “Golden Boy” Sidney Crosby defiantly biting the hand from which he is fed. Tempers flared and failed to be contained; federal mediators stepped in to calm the storm, only to hopelessly exit the battlefield without progress.
Inherent to the conflict and throbbing within the hearts of fans were mixed emotions of comedy and futility. Although the lockout festivities were entertaining in their own right, fans across the world simply wanted to watch hockey.
Feelings of betrayal leftover from the lockout in 2004, which resulted in the shutdown of an entire NHL season, are still fresh within their memory. Those passions resurfaced in the form of columns, Facebook posts, and Twitter rants expressing criticism concerning the apparent indifference towards fans demonstrated by players and league executives. As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Hockey fans rallied in opposition to having their interests once again trounced by an unstable and markedly adverse labor-management affiliation.
To be fair, the owners truly made an honest effort to restore sanity to a process that seemed stagnated by the players’ insistent demands. They conceded a generous 50-50 split of hockey related revenue in mid-October, only to be met with surprise disputes regarding maximum contract lengths. With reason, the league made an attempt to limit run-away contract lengths that constrain players’ motivation to work hard on years when they aren’t facing Free Agency at the end of the season. Those who cringe at the contemplation of Rick DiPietro’s 15-year, $67.5 million deal and lack of output may feel such restrictions are just. Nonetheless, the moment concessions were made on the part of the owners, Donald Fehr and the National Hockey League Players’ Association fired new attacks from different positions. The result was a vicious cycle that repeated itself in discussions on nearly every stipulation that could be debated within the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
As nearly two weeks have passed since the opening day of the 2013 NHL season, there is an apparent divergence among hockey fans in regards to their response. Resentment towards the league has overpowered love for the sport in the minds of some fans. There are Facebook pages pledging an allegiance to boycott the NHL — the largest of such groups has managed to collect 1,765 bitter cohorts.
Nevertheless, the majority of the NHL’s loyal fan-base is still strongly intact. For these fans, a type of separation anxiety has been gaining momentum with each restless day of the lockout. Shortly following the agreement, over 10,000 Buffalo Sabres fans flocked to a free team scrimmage held at the First Niagara Center. The season opened with 13 sold-out games and was broadcast with record ratings. Sell-out crowds weren’t exclusive to Canadian cities, as a surge of southern American fans rushed to games in cities like Nashville, Dallas, and Sunrise, Fla. Canadian fans have loyalty to hockey from birth, yet it appears as if the “Don’t Tread On Me” nature within American blood has been diluted by a relatively newfound love and appreciation for the game.
NHL players and league executives would learn considerably by simply observing the unwavering loyalty of their fans. There were simpler times when players felt gratified to play the game that they love, and owners were content in turning a marginal profit.
However, in an age of multi-billion dollar professional-sports industries, those days are long gone. Looking to the future, one can only hope that a sport with such a rich history and tradition will fail to be enshrouded by the mists of greed. But for now, hockey fans worldwide finally have something to cheer about.
Colman is a member of the class of 2015.