On the almost-eve of the return of NHL hockey, I promise to not belabour the point (for too long), but I do wish to take the league to task for their decision to use the phrase and online hashtag #hockeyisback to promote the “triumphant” and long overdue return of the professional game. Perhaps for less educated NHL-only fans beyond Canadian borders the NHL is synonymous with hockey. Though I did meet and several hockey parents and players in places like Nashville back in November who I’m sure would argue otherwise.
What I’d like to state here and maybe even start a mini online revolt over is #hockeyneverleft. Yes, while the NHL was off sorting out its finances, hockey continued on ponds, in local arenas, on the world stage for major junior and national teams and in the hearts and minds of players from mini mites to beer leaguers everywhere. As I write this the hometown OHL team’s 39th game is on the tube. A great exhibition of hockey by young men fighting and dreaming of a chance to play in The Show. The NHL and its players, particularly with their recent greedy shenanigans, cannot just show up five months late and lay claim to the game we love. If anyone asked me I would have quickly offered snappy alternative catchphrases like #theNHLisbackinbusiness or #showmedahockeymoney. We heard a lot about how the players just wanted to get back on the ice, but then found out that was only true if they could ensure multi-million dollar pensions were protected. And to again be clear, I place blame equally on the league and the players; both handling the labour situation in a business-like manner because after all that’s exactly what it is – a business first. So don’t come back a few days later with a soppy, melodramatic marketing video claiming to be protectors of the beautiful game you’ve held as a pawn in your litte side game these so many weeks.
Starvation of the media, who are naturally fuelled by pro hockey news and have had nothing “hockey-related” to talk about since back in September, is painfully obvious as I’ve heard and seen intense in-depth coverage of every aspect of the Maple Leafs’ abbreviated training camp; an unfortunate hazard of living so close to Toronto as a non-Leafs fan. And online from Twitter to Facebook to each and every sports-related website, should you care, you can readily find the minutiae that is pre-season NHL hockey in every city the game is played; and particularly the Canadian cities. Not sure the same enthusiasm is felt in Phoenix, Tampa, Miami or the home of the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Pretty sure they, who are the primary target of the marketing spin, care whether or not #hockeyisback.
As for me, I can honestly say I didn’t and still don’t really miss the NHL as we’re generally so busy with our kids hockey, which usually occupies 5-7 days a week. I don’t get a chance to watch many regular season games anyway. I’m guessing the parents of most competitive hockey players are in the same boat. When we are home there are so many other things to draw our attention like work, the Internet and a myriad of other sports. Given the choice the Boy himself will head to the basement to play Call of Duty or NHL13 online with mostly his hockey buddies. They love to play, but aren’t necessarily compelled to watch the pro version of their favourite game. If I did have time to actually go to a game, the closest team is the Leafs and very few families of four can afford the price of a hockey night in Toronto.
Add to this what has become an inexorably long NHL regular season where most early and mid-season games feel like they don’t even really matter. I said a few weeks ago, as the lockout dragged on, I wouldn’t mind if every season was condensed to 50 games or so, provided they still started in September and were done by April or May. Every year in recent memory, as the playoffs are heading into the third week of June, I and most people I’ve talked to have lost interest in staying indoors to watch a Winter sport. There are, of course, a few diehards or the fans who’s teams are still contending for the Cup who continue to watch and cheer. In the upcoming shortened season, by comparison, pretty much every game will matter. Getting off to a slow start could dramatically affect a team’s ability to make the playoffs.
Maybe this was all part of a sinister plan by the NHL and NHLPA to make their game more exciting at the risk of losing a whole bunch of erstwhile followers. As a fine Canadian writer, Dave Bidini, aptly pointed out in a recent National Post article, the NHL better hope they haven’t created too much apathy and/or outright anger in former die-hards with four work stoppages since 1992. He writes of what he sees and hears in men’s league hockey change rooms, “It’s a stink of ennui and dissatisfaction and anger (and maybe a little boredom) caused by the way NHL hockey has turned since the Gary Bettmans of the world got a hold of it; or rather, since the Bettmans began to ride it, for old hockey codgers with caterpillar scars will tell you that it got this way once they started wearing helmets and moving teams out of Canada.”
Don’t get me wrong. I will no doubt watch a game or two when I can find the time and I’m likely all in once the playoffs start depending on its participants. After all, the NHL concocted a devious plan specifically aimed at me when they brought back my beloved Winnipeg Jets after so many years in exile. Rory Boylen of The Hockey News rightly points out NHL fans will flock back with open arms because it still is the highest level of hockey being played and every team has its loyal following. A conversation with a friend/colleague in Montreal this afternoon further confirmed this as he noted and likewise complained about lineups outside the Bell Centre for tonight’s Habs intra-squad game. He pointed out how teams in American cities are trying to lure fans back with free tickets and bargain basement prices on paraphernalia while in Montreal and Toronto there are no such deals to be had.
Plenty of fans, bar and restaurant owners, league employees and reporters, as noted, have been anxiously waiting for the NHL’s return and I am pleased for them. The NHL’s hockey business still does matter to this increasingly exclusive group.
I said I wouldn’t go on too long, so here endeth the rant. However, based on recent history of this league and management of their “hockey” business, look for another to follow in 8-10 years. Hope someone still cares enough to listen where the NHL is concerned, but fairly confident I’ll still be able to heartily say #hockeyneverleft.
Please do chime in if you agree, disagree or could not care either way (in keeping with the theme).