NHL: Lockouts destroy the game


What’s that?

The NHL lockout is over?

Maybe it’s just me, but as diehard of an NHL and hockey fan as I am, I didn’t exactly feel an overwhelming sense of impending joy at the news when I awoke Saturday morning.

I’m sick of, as a fan, being treated like garbage by a league that blatantly takes advantage of its lifeblood.

Because let’s be honest here. Joe fan didn’t miss the NHL. He (or she) had the prime of the NFL season, the college football bowl season, non-conference college basketball and the NBA to whet that sports appetite.

But particularly in Michigan, at least where I’m from, a winter without the NHL is practically unbearable. We love our Detroit Red Wings. Where else but Michigan will one million fans turnout for an NHL championship parade? Maybe Toronto or Montreal, but we may never know.

The NHL knows fanbases, such as those of the Red Wings and other hockey niches around North America have an insatiable appetite for hockey. They’ll come crawling back foaming at the mouth, no matter how many times they’ve been punched in the gut by that which they idolize.

After a third lockout in 17 years that has claimed at least half a season, the NHL has succeeded in accomplishing something terrible – turning even the diehard fans away from the game.

It’s been a long time in the making.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has never been loved by hockey fans. Among his first moves in his reign of terror was renaming the conferences. Clarence Campbell became Western Conference. Prince of Wales became Eastern Conference. This was, of course, a move to make the league more accessible to Joe Fan who had no idea of the significance of NHL history.

Next, he installed teams in the wintery hockey hotbeds of…Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Raleigh, N.C., Phoenix, Atlanta and Nashville.

Because those were solid TV markets, and so what if hockey was about as foreign of a concept as cricket in those locations.

The League became watered down with expansion. Predictably, many of those franchises either failed or suffered financial strain. Atlanta is no more, having moved to Winnipeg, where a franchise deservedly belonged. Phoenix, Tampa Bay and Florida have all been propped up by the NHL at one point or another.

It’s not rocket science. Hockey is a niche sport. It will never have a national following like the NFL and Major League Baseball do.

So Mr. Popularity, Gary Bettman, never to admit a glaring mistake, and not willing to sell his failing franchises to owners who would move those teams to Canada or other far more secure locations, doubles down.

All three of these lockouts, at the root, are about propping up his failing franchises. Don’t think for a minute that Red Wings owner Mike Illitch wanted any of this. The same goes for ownership in Toronto, Montreal, New York, Boston, or any successful franchise.

This is about ownership in locations like New Jersey who dished out massive decade long contracts when they couldn’t afford to do so, and struggling markets like Phoenix who can’t compete with this new wave of high stakes gambling.

Upon realization of this fact, ownership got together and decided players were making too much money, a problem of their own making, and demanded reductions and concessions, both in pay and length of contracts. They weren’t even willing to honor contracts currently on the books.

So you see?

Some people like to say this was a two-sided affair and the players union is just as much to blame. I ask, would you accept it, if your boss tore up your contract and cut your pay? Oh, and that health insurance we were paying for? That’s now coming out your pocket.

Also keep in mind that this was not a strike. The players wanted to play, the NHL wouldn’t let them. That’s a lockout.

I don’t blame the players. I place blame squarely on an incompetent but vocal minority of owners and the world’s worst negotiator, unwilling to stand up for the integrity of the League, Gary Bettman.

It’s madness, that this man will no doubt keep his job despite three significant labor stoppages in 17 years.

When the NHL does return in a just over a week, expect a severely watered-down product. Teams will be playing after just one week of training camp and no exhibition season. Many players didn’t skate for anyone during the course of the lockout. The usual point of the NHL’s midseason, when many players are just getting into top form, will now be the start of the playoffs.

At season’s end when Bettman presents the Stanley Cup to the eventual NHL champion, the fans should stand up and walk out of the arena.

I don’t think I’ll truly love the NHL again as long as Bettman remains the head of the League. Not when there are plenty of suitable and willing replacements.

Let’s not forget that Bettman’s history was never rooted in hockey. He is the protege of NBA commissioner David Stern and came recommended by him. And he set forth transforming the NHL into something its not, nor will it ever be.