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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.

Full audio of Laich interview provides context on playoff comments

In an interview Wednesday morning with The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan, Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich was asked, “This is worst case scenario, but if the Caps do wind up missing the playoffs, is there one game from the past month or so that you’re going to look back on and say that’s the one that cost us a playoff spot?” Laich responded, “We’re making the playoffs. We’re not talking worst-case scenario. We’re making the playoffs.”

Laich

Laich (Photo credit: clydeorama)

As Dan Steinberg wrote in a D.C. Sports Bog post about the interview, “…it was pointed out to Laich [by the Junkies] that he had just guaranteed a playoff berth. He sort of laughed, but didn’t respond.” Laich never actually used the word “guarantee” himself.

To me, it sounded like Laich didn’t quite know what to say when he ‘sort of laughed,’ as the Junkies joked that he’d just made a “guarantee.” As one of The Junkies pointed out once Laich was no longer on the line, “I think Brooks is probably saying, ‘Holy shoot, what did I just say. That’s gonna be all over the papers.'”

Laich did not back down from his comments later in the day at Caps practice, as The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera reported on the Capitals Insider blog: “I have a belief we’re going to be in the playoffs and that’s it,” Laich said. “I don’t want to discuss any scenario that we’re not. My belief is that we’re going to be in the playoffs.”

Some media outlets and Twitter users have labeled Laich’s comments a “guarantee,” like in the headline of Carrera’s Capitals Insider article that’s linked to in the previous paragraph. (Caps radio guy John Walton wasn’t a fan of that approach). Other have compared him to Mark Messier, who guaranteed a Rangers victory during the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It seems to me that Laich is just looking at things in a confident, positive way—somewhat like Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco was with statements he made this week about his quarterback skills—and, like Flacco, perhaps Laich should have chosen his words differently…or maybe not.

These two situations with Laich and Flacco are examples of how the media often chooses to focus on the sound bite that generates attention, produces web hits and causes reactions like the one from the Buffalo Sabre’s goaltender Ryan Miller about Laich’s comments. The press will pick that one statement and run with it, sometimes without providing context or the rest of the story. When the full interview is taken in, Laich’s words seem more about a mindset than a guarantee.

As for Flacco, on Tuesday he said he thinks he’s the NFL’s “best” quarterback—or at least that’s how his comments came across to some.

On CSNBaltimore.com in a post titled “What Joe really said”, John Eisenberg wrote about Flacco’s comments:

Numerous national experts weighed in with a range of opinions, many either mocking him or daring him to prove it.

My response? Yeah, yeah, big deal. Let me know when he says something interesting.

If you actually listen to the interview, which took place on WNST 1570, he merely responded to a question about whether he thought he was a “top five” quarterback by suggesting all NFL quarterbacks should believe in themselves along those lines.

“Without a doubt [I'm in the top 5],” he said. “What do you expect me to say? I would assume everybody thinks they’re a top-5 quarterback. I think I’m the best. I don’t think I’m the top 5, I think I’m the best. I wouldn’t be very successful at my job if I didn’t feel that way. That doesn’t mean that things are going to work out that way. It just means that’s the way it is – that’s the way I feel that it is and that’s the way I feel it should be.”

Going back to Laich’s comments, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff commented to the Buffalo News, when told about them: “Those are all predictions that you live with, you die with, you hope to motivate your team with. He probably believes sincerely they’re gonna make it. They probably like their schedule, their chances of playing Florida in their building. We got our work cut out for us, they got theirs. Our thoughts are making the playoffs too.”

Is that a guarantee, Lindy? Quick! Somebody better go ask the Caps what they think of that.

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