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With new slogan and simple apologies, NHL still doesn’t seem to get it

Backyard hockey

Announcing their return from another lockout, the NHL’s new slogan states, “Hockey is back.” In reality, their brand of hockey is back. Other leagues—from college to juniors to the minors and even recreational and instructional ones—carried on, as did thousands of informal street and pond games. The NHL may be home to the best men’s hockey players in the world, however, the sport exists outside the boundaries of their business.

But the NHL’s new marketing copy goes along with the way the league and the players’ association often appeared to be operating during the latest lockout: as if they are the only thing that matters.

As has been written many times at this point, the two sides turned their back on fans, businesses and arena employees by not getting a deal done in time to for the start of the season in September and then dragging out their work stoppage for four months. The NHL and the NHLPA even released statements in their back-and-forth on the day of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, while many were focused on that tragedy, hammering home the fact that the two parties seemed to be living in a clouded world of their own.

And with their new slogan, the NHL still doesn’t appear to get it. Hockey never left. A bunch of guys who waited too long to start seriously negotiating a deal deserted thousands who were invested in them. The game of hockey itself is more than just a business and goes on, with or without those men.

If the league and the players want to engage fans who are feeling uninspired to watch the NHL brand of hockey, many of them need to rethink the way they’re issuing their post-lockout statements.

Some players and owners have been thanking fans for their patience and some have apologized; I do not question the sincerity of these statements. If this had been the first time the league had shut down on its fans, perhaps words of sorry and thanks would be enough.

But after four work stoppages in the last two decades, more players and owners, as well as Commissioner Gary Bettman, need to not only thank people for their patience and apologize, but show true regret and that they understand they flat-out screwed up by allowing another lockout to occur.

Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller came out with some of the more honest talk I’ve seen from a player since the lockout ended, telling ESPN:

“The best thing to do is acknowledge that it was stupid,” Miller said Friday, before turning his attention to Sabres fans. “I appreciate their patience. I know it’s a hard situation. I still don’t even know the right message because it was just a stupid, useless waste of time.”

Miller, who played a role in negotiations, called himself “embarrassed” that it took more than six months of negotiations to reach an agreement.

Roughly worded but honest statements like Miller’s are a good place to start as more in the NHL draft their own messages. NHL hockey may be back, but some fans will be slow to return until more is done by the league and the players to show they truly grasp what they’ve been responsible for.

As my six-year-old daughter likes to say, “Sorry isn’t magic.” To win more people back, the NHL and NHLPA need to show that they understand just how big of a mistake they made and then, like any good team must do, stop making the same ones over and over and over.

Uninspired to watch: The NHL is back and I don’t care

The NHL is back and I don’t care.

Strike that. I care because of the innocent businesses and arena employees whose income was affected by the work stoppage. I’m excited for them that the lockout that began in September has finally ended. But other than that, there’s not a bone in my body that’s excited about NHL hockey at the moment.

My current disinterest in the league has nothing to do with protesting. This is not a situation where I’m ignoring a game I enjoy, just to stick it to the NHL and the NHLPA. I’m simply feeling uninspired to watch after sitting through yet another of the league’s work stoppages—the fourth in the last two decades and the third lockout of the Commissioner Gary Bettman era—with this latest version having lasted for well over 100 days.

In the early stages of the lockout, I felt disgust toward Bettman, the owners and the players’ association. I expected that, once NHL play started up again, my skipping games would be part of a personal boycott due to the greedy parties appearing to forget about the fans as they dragged out their back-and-forth.

But at some point in the last few weeks, my frustration gave way to apathy and, eventually, I found myself comfortably thinking I could live without NHL hockey. Now, I’m at a point where I need no convincing; I have no urge to turn on an NHL game as soon as they start-up.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the NHL brand of hockey, I’m very much feeling inspired to watch the sport itself. If I still lived in the DC area, I imagine going without NHL games would be tougher, as there aren’t high quality hockey options in that region other than the Washington Capitals. The AHL’s Hershey Bears are over two hours away and high level college hockey is even further. Perhaps I’d reluctantly go to Caps games, just to see some hockey, until my passion for the NHL eventually returned.

Harvard at Quinnipiac, January 5, 2013

Harvard at Quinnipiac, January 5, 2013

But a few weeks ago, my family and I moved to Connecticut and on Saturday night I attended my first Division I college hockey game in over 10 years, watching the Quinnipiac men’s team defeat Harvard to extend their unbeaten streak to 14. The hockey was exciting, the arena was great and at no point did I find myself feeling like I was watching a lower quality product than I’d see at an NHL game (though obviously there is a difference in the overall skill level). I can’t wait to get back to another college game and I imagine it will be weeks or days before I attend my next, not years like last time.

I’m not sure when I’ll feel the urge to invest time and money in the NHL again. It could be weeks or days or months. I doubt I’m gone for good. But the end of the lockout hardly has me excited to watch. The last of that desire left me weeks ago, drained while witnessing two sides bicker as if they didn’t care much about when NHL hockey started up again either, or for anyone but themselves. The agreement they are finalizing now would have been great news last summer.

Past words of lockout wisdom from The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell

The Washington Post’s sports columnists may be failing to write about the current NHL lockout, but they’ve had plenty to say about past collective bargaining agreement battles. In looking through some old Post pieces on the subject, I came across one from March 2011, written by Thomas Boswell on the NFL labor dispute.

Much of Boswell’s column, which suggested that the NFL learn from baseball’s 1994-95 strike and the damage it did to that sport, applies to the current NHL situation as well. Hockey fans might enjoy this part in particular:

There’s another side of the coin: our side. Fans of the NFL, even the most ardent, should also learn something from baseball’s misery: Don’t care. Or care as little as you can. Don’t live and die with the latest twist in talks. If the current 24-hour extension leads to progress, that’s great. But if this moment of hope leads to nothing, be prepared to mock both sides and, when you can, try to laugh. That’s the only pleasure we’re going to get.

Because there is one certainty when labor fights get this intense: Neither side cares about you. If you pick a favorite and scream your opinion, then you’re probably the sucker. The owners will only listen to those who back them. The same goes for the players.

The sound that really worries them is silence. Try to provide it.

Perhaps the scariest parallel between baseball then and football now is the idea that the healthier the sport, the less likely a disaster. That’s backward. Lots of money on the table brings out the worst in people, seldom the best.

I’m not ready to go silent yet, but I’m certainly not taking sides either. I place blame for hockey’s current situation on both the owners—whose side includes three-time lockout commissioner Gary Bettman—and the players.

Now’s a fine time to make noise that you don’t appreciate what any of the parties involved in this lockout are doing to the fans. But more importantly, the time when people can really make an impact is when the games finally start-up again. That’s when silence could speak volumes or perhaps millions is a better word, as in millions of dollars in lost revenue.

As I wrote in a lockout-related post earlier this week, “Having waited out a few of these NHL dramas before, I wouldn’t mind seeing the league struggle to draw spectators before things return to normal. Considering the two sides had years to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that could have prevented the cancellation of games and satisfied all parties—including the seemingly forgotten customers—Bettman, the owners and the players deserve it, especially when they’ve behaved as if they learned little, if anything at all, about fan frustration from the 2004-05 lockout.”

Make noise now or go about your business quietly. But when hockey returns, that’s when it’s time for the fans to impose their own lockout, rather than going rushing back to games as if nothing ever happened. Sparse attendance, lackluster merchandise sales and poor television ratings are ways the public can send some well-earned frustration back in the direction of the owners and players.

Perhaps the NHL will never learn, but I’m willing to take a chance that they might by taking my entertainment dollars elsewhere for a bit.

As NHL’s latest lockout lingers on, a basement hockey league goes overseas

Habits and even loyalties can change during an NHL lockout, and that’s especially possible during the 2012 edition, as fans sour on a league that has played the work stoppage card four times since 1992. As the NHL owners and players squabble, the hockey-starved can find games elsewhere, from college to the minors or even overseas, where many NHL players have gone in search of playing time and a paycheck.

Monday afternoon, I showed my four-year old, hockey-crazy son an online stream of Washington Capitals stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom playing together in the KHL for Dynamo Moscow against former Caps goaltender Semyon Varlamov and his team, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

My son doesn’t fully understand the NHL lockout, but he knows it’s hockey season here in North America and that his favorite team isn’t playing until the owners and the players come to a new agreement. He had a few questions as I showed him Ovechkin and Backstrom on the ice together, and he was excited to see some hockey.

As I watched more of the game, my son went into the other room, grabbed his gloves and stick, and started playing a game of basement hockey as he does almost every day—except this time the two teams involved were from the KHL. He ran into the room every couple of minutes with game updates and questions, such as how to say “Varlamov’s team’s name again,” and eventually Ovechkin scored in a shootout to give Moscow a big victory in our downstairs arena.

Should the lockout go much longer, my family and I will likely seek out some live, non-NHL hockey to fill the void left by the absence of Caps games at Verizon Center. Maybe it will be an AHL or ECHL game or some college hockey. Whatever it is, I can’t help but wonder what will happen with younger fans like my son if the NHL cancels most or all of the 2012-13 season.

I already know that I, like some other fans I’ve spoken with, are frustrated enough by the NHL and NHLPA’s inability to get a deal done that we won’t be rushing to the games as soon as they start-up again. Sooner or later though, I’ll get the urge to venture back into an NHL arena. I imagine it could be requests from my kids to go to Caps games again that first lead me back to Commissioner Gary Bettman’s league. But what if by the time the NHL resumes games, their favorite team is the Hershey Bears or someone else?

If the owners and players keep their ridiculousness going much longer and younger fans latch onto teams from other leagues, perhaps some customers will be gone for a while; I doubt many will be gone for good. Having waited out a few of these NHL dramas before, I wouldn’t mind seeing the league struggle to draw spectators before things return to normal. Considering the two sides had years to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that could have prevented the cancellation of games and satisfied all parties—including the seemingly forgotten customers—Bettman, the owners and the players deserve it, especially when they’ve behaved as if they learned little, if anything at all, about fan frustration from the 2004-05 lockout.

For now though, there’s a kid in my house who’s just thrilled to have some hockey to watch and mimic. It doesn’t seem to matter much to him that it’s not the NHL brand.

Where are the Washington Post sports columnists on the NHL lockout?

The NHL is now one month into a lockout that has delayed the start of the 2012-13 season. Games have been canceled and the league and the players association are engaged in back and forth that fans and local business owners hope will soon lead to some hockey.

Here in D.C., the Caps would have opened their season at home last Friday night against the Stanley Cup runner-up New Jersey Devils and, while Washington Post Caps beat reporter Katie Carrera continues to cover the sport, there’s been almost no mention of the NHL work stoppage by any of the paper’s sports columnists. Save for one piece which featured the fake diary of league commissioner Gary Bettman, I’ve yet to see a Post Sports opinion item on a topic that seems worth at least a column or two by now.

I realize that the Nats’ playoff run and the excitement around RG3 and the Redskins have been the main focus for sports pundits in this town lately, as they should be. But a major team in Washington is currently season-less and that deserves some ink from the columnists with the city’s largest newspaper.

Are you wearing your NHL gear during the lockout? And other thoughts

A Reddit commenter, reacting to my post about the Caps’ merchandise tweet yesterday, touched on something I’ve faced during the NHL lockout myself. “I won’t even wear Caps stuff that I already own, let alone buy new stuff,” they wrote.

Like that fan, I don’t have much desire to put on my Washington Capitals gear these days. The red Caps hat I normally wear often, it now sits at home and my team t-shirts haven’t seen the light of day in a few weeks.

This isn’t my way of protesting or making a statement. I have no plans to burn jerseys in the streets (though gathering with a few thousands fans peacefully outside the NHL Store near Times Square certainly has some appeal). I’m mostly just too frustrated with the league and the players to wear these things. The two sides have had years under the old collective bargaining agreement to figure out where to go next with their arrangement and to avoid another lockout, yet here we are again. I see hockey merchandise in my house and I just kind of think, “jerks,” before finding something else to wear.

I posted something on Twitter about the lack of enthusiasm for donning Caps gear at the moment and got a few responses from other people who feel similarly:

As much as I love Caps hockey, color me unexcited to rock any red at least until things are resolved, or likely even longer as a result of watching the two parties drag things out like they don’t have a care in the world when hockey starts up again. With as infrequently as the two parties get together to negotiate, I have to wonder if they’re truly taking much time at all to consider the fans or the thousands of businesses and employees they’re hurting (see the “Related article” section below for some examples). Their lack of urgency speaks volumes.

The longer the two sides take to get a deal done, the closer we get to pitchers and catchers reporting. Once that happens, it’s hard to say how long it will be until I invest much time and money into hockey again. Major League Baseball seems to have learned something from its past labor struggles; why the NHL hasn’t is an enigma (miss you, Sasha!). What about you, Commissioner Bettman, do you know why this keeps happening?

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