Tag Archives: lockout

Fans Will Be Back Because the NHL is Home

By Jason Menard

Will NHL fans come flocking back to the league? Absolutely — it’s part of who we are and it’s part of what makes us a community.

I was asked this question yesterday by an old friend Scott Kitching on Blackburn Radio and I replied honestly: some fans may want to play hard ball, but once they start seeing the previous night’s highlights on TV, hearing the fans banter on sports talk radio, or overhearing the annual debates around the watercooler, they’ll want to be part of the action again.

Being an NHL fan isn’t just a choice — it’s a feeling.

And while I said and believed it yesterday; today I felt it for the first time in a long time. Continue reading

NHL Fans? Relax, It’s Just Business

By Jason Menard,

It’s a day of mixed emotions for many NHL fans — they’re thrilled the league has resolved its differences and brought the lockout to an end, but they’re equally angry at both the owners and the players for depriving them of their game — and they don’t know how to react.

The answer? Fans just have to remember, this wasn’t personal — it’s just business. Continue reading

Posties’ Problem? They’re Wearing the Wrong Type of Uniform

By Jason Menard

The problem with Canada Post? They don’t throw deliveries through a hoop into your mailbox or have to feint past a postal opponent to shoot your mail into a community box. If they had, supporters would have welcomed them back with open arms – a case we’ve seen repeated over and over in the sporting world.

The postal lock-out has now been over for a week, thanks to back-to-work legislation from the federal government. Despite the filibustering efforts of the NDP, the Conservatives finally got their chance to use a majority – and they did. Continue reading

Fortune or Foresight? The NHL’s Winning Formula

By Jason Menard

The NHL not only managed to slip its head out of its self-imposed noose, but the league appears to have found a winning lottery ticket on the way down the ladder.

All the public hand-wringing and doomsday scenarios cooked up by the pundits have been put on ice, as the National Hockey League has rebounded nicely from its lockout to boast improved attendance numbers, a better product, and a future that’s so bright Gary Bettman’s gotta wear shades.

The league released its attendance figures, clocking in a 91.7 per cent capacity over the year, league-wide. Now, some may snicker at that number considering that some of those 20,854,169 reported attendees arrived dressed as empty seats. But regardless of how many fans walked through the turnstiles, a 2.4 per cent increase in tickets sold is nothing to sneeze at – especially in light of the potential damage the lockout could have caused.

Luckily for the NHL, common sense combined with serendipity to provide an exciting, dynamic year that gave the fans a reason to come back.

It’s not surprising that Montreal was able to set a team record for season attendance. They were able to sell out all 41 home games in the cavernous 21,273 Bell Centre. In fact, it’s no surprise that Canadian hockey fans were ready to come back in droves – the surprise was that there was no drop-off in U.S. fan support.

Realizing the precipice upon which they were perched, the league finally listened to its legion of constructive critics and implemented a host of rule and stylistic changes designed to speed up the game, let the skill players display their talents unimpeded by lumbering goons, and add goals to the game. Most importantly, they ensured that each game would end with a winner and a loser.

Part of the joy of being a hockey fan comes from experiencing the highs and lows of the season. However, it’s hard to ride that emotional rollercoaster when it’s stuck in neutral – and that’s what happened in the past as so many teams were playing not to lose and we more than content with a tie and the point it provided. The addition of the shootout, gimmicky as some may think it is, gets the butts out of the seats, brings back the breathless anticipation that hockey is known for, and gives fans back the opportunity to experience the depth of disappointment that accompanies a loss. However, that feeling also allows them enjoy the adrenaline rush that a win brings with even more passion.

That’s what common sense brought: the knowledge that hockey was a game with untapped potential that was being impeded through clutch-and-grab tactics. Desperation is the mother of invention and to reaffirm their place in the professional sporting mosaic, the NHL had to make changes.

The serendipity came with the fact that so many teams from non-traditional markets were in contention for playoffs right down to the wire. How much was fan interest buoyed in Atlanta thanks to the fact that the Ilya Kovalchuk-led Thrashers were in it right down to the final weekend? Did the Carolina Hurricanes’ success have anything to do with their 27 per cent increase in fan support? What about Nashville’s unexpected performance? Do you think that may have helped the team improve attendance by 10 per cent? Did Joe Thornton’s arrival and subsequent sparking of the San Jose Sharks playoff drive matter to the fans? A six per cent increase says yes.

Like the increase in fan support in Montreal, NHL markets are notorious for supporting their teams win or tie. The fact that so many non-traditional market teams were playing games that mattered only gave a bigger stage to display the changes that were made on the ice.

All the talk about fan revolt dissipated when we realized that it wasn’t just the NHL that was back – it was the NHL game of our youth that was resurrected. Just as Wayne Gretzky made his return to rinks behind the Phoenix Coyotes bench, the style of game that he enjoyed in his heyday was back in fashion.

While it’s hard to say that losing a season of one’s favourite sport is ever a worthwhile venture, the bitter pill fans were forced to swallow has gone down much easier with the sweet changes made to the current game. Now fans have to hope that the league has finally cured what ails it and commits to ensuring its long-term health.

Whether it was foresight, serendipity, plain dumb luck, or a combination of all three, the NHL has stumbled across a winning formula – and it’s the fans who are the biggest beneficiaries.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

New/Old Hockey Makes the Grade

By Jason Menard

It was inevitable, of course. The whispers of discontent regarding the new version of hockey are slowly working their way up to a dull roar. But the danger is that we’re not seeing the forest for the trees – and clear-cutting the whole region is not the answer.

You put certain media types together in a confined space and the cynicism comes out. In their hypercritical, hyperbole-friendly manner of existence sports reporters – especially the bad ones – tend to go overboard in their reactions either one way or the other. That’s why it comes as no surprise that a pair of reporters covering a recent London Knights contest were trying to outdo each other in their negativity.

“So much for that crackdown on holding,” says Mr. Cynic.

“Yeah, it was just a matter of time,” replies Mr. Curmudgeon.

“Look at that – that hook would have got you two minutes at the beginning of the season,” opines Mr. Cynic.

“Yep, it’s back to the old hockey,” concurs Mr. Curmudgeon.

Now, let’s rewind to the beginning of the year when the complaints would have been like this:

“Wow, he just tapped him with the stick and it’s a penalty,” Mr. Cynic notes.

“Yep, you can’t even breathe on a guy without getting sent to the box,” Mr. Curmudgeon replies.

“How can you play defence like this? What’s next, looking at a guy’ll get you five?” retorts Mr. Cynic.

“Yep, this new hockey’s basically pond hockey with boards,” concludes Mr. Curmudgeon.

So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But beyond the hypercritical who see every missed hook and every minor hack that gets ignored as evidence of a return to the dark ages, today’s game is better than it was just two years ago (well, for the NHL – last year for everyone else.)

After an early feeling-out period where defenders were overcompensating for the stricter enforcement of obstruction-type penalties, players, refs, and coaches alike appear to have come to terms with the new NHL. Refs may not be so quick with the whistle, but that’s in large part to the better mutual understanding of the game.

What we have is a faster-paced game, with more offence. Defence is still a part of the game, but it has to be based on intelligence and positioning, not just goons getting their big meat hooks into approaching attackers. We have games where fans know that even if their team is two or three goals down in the third period, there’s still the opportunity to come back. We have more end-to-end rushes and more counter-attacks. We have, in essence, the game for which we’ve been asking for the past few years.

So why the complaints? Why the grumbling? Simply put, fear. We’re afraid of letting the game deteriorate to the point that it was two years ago. We let the game deteriorate on our watch, and we’re wary of letting it happen again.

What’s worked? What hasn’t? It seems that listening to fans, players, and general managers paid off for the NHL brass. Shocking that those most directly involved in the game would have the most insight into how to fix it.

Simply put, the NHL has scored on most fronts: the elimination of the centre red line has opened up the flow of the game and eliminated the countless – and pointless – offside calls. The restriction on the size of goalie equipment has not turned all goalies into human sieves, nor has it unnecessarily put their lives at risk. Even the contentious no-goalie zones in the corner of the rink has worked out, reducing, but not banning goaltender involvement in puck control. Best off all, we’re enjoying a faster game without having to impact the size of the ice surface. The game got faster without the rink getting wider, so purists – and money-conscious owners – are happy.

Overall the game is faster, the skill players are showcasing their wares, and fans are being treated to a level of hockey they haven’t seen since the late 80s/early 90s. The old/new NHL is working – but it’s not time to rest on its laurels.

The league must do something about making visors mandatory. Fans pay good money and invest in their heart and souls in these players – the least they could to is protect themselves. As well, something has to be done to encourage hitting. While speed is a big part of the game’s resurgence, the body check should not be phased out as a result. Because of overzealous refs and a lack of understanding about how the rules would be enforced, many players shied away from laying the body. But that has to change.

Hockey at its best is fast-paced, hard-hitting, and intense. We’re part of the way there – it’s not time to stop now. For the first time in year’s the NHL is creating a buzz. Now they just have keep on keeping on, and not ruin the momentum.

But for a league that’s long been known to shoot itself in the foot, will reaching this successful height prove to be too dizzying? Fans everywhere are holding their breath (but not their opponent’s stick!) in anticipation.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

NHL’s Thank Yous Ring Hollow

By Jason Menard

For a while last night, I thought it was time to change my contact lenses because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Yet, there it was, flickering right on my TV screen. I now know what adding insult to injury actually looks like.

Those of us who watched Thursday’s broadcast of the hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers were subjected to the sight of the boys from Broadway taking the ice with jerseys bearing the message “Thank You” replacing the customary “New York” lettering.

In an attempt to suck up to fans at all costs, the league has turned it into a dog and pony show – and the sentiments ring hollow.

We know, no matter how much lip service the players pay to being happy to be back, they’re still smarting from the repeated slaps in the face they took during the lockout. “Our boys” found out that our support has its limits and they were genuinely shocked when most fans supported the owners in the labour dispute.

So now these alpha males have come back with their tails firmly between their legs, making the best of a bad situation. And, instead of allowing for a graceful return, the league has decided to rub a little more salt in the still-festering wound. The obviously staged, and eminently hollow, act of wearing “Thank You” jerseys does nothing more than add another side order of shame that the players have to swallow – adding to the already heaping helping of humble pie they’ve been forced to stomach through the negotiation of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Whether it’s “Thank You” emblazoned across the players’ chests, messages expressing the league’s gratitude prominently painted on the ice, or any other displays of affection, we fans aren’t buying it. Aside from a select few naïve people, most hockey fans know that the game we love is actually a business. We know that there are millions upon billions of dollars changing hands. And, although we may not like it, we know that the lockout was just a part of doing business, however unsavoury it may have been.

But it’s becoming more and more apparent that fans are willing to let bygones be bygones. Starting with the circus-like free agency period, to the drama of the entry draft and the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes, to the establishment of new rules (and commitment to enforcing old ones) designed to make the game more entertaining, fans have embraced the excitement of the new season and are eager to get on with our lives.

We’ve accepted the lockout as a necessary evil – an action that the league had to take to maintain the long-term viability of the league and to restore competitive financial balance so that we won’t have to face the loss of another Winnipeg or Quebec City. But we certainly don’t want to be reminded of it on a daily basis.

If the players and the league truly want to show us how much they appreciate our patronage, then they need to do it in the only way that matters – on the ice through effort, intensity, and talent. Thank us by playing hard each and every night. Thank us by displaying the combination of grace, skill, and toughness that makes hockey the most exciting game on Earth.

If they’re really thankful for the fans’ support in returning to the rinks, then take the extra time to get to know your admirers. Sign a few more autographs (without it having to be mandated), make yourself more available to the media for interviews (as this is the only way many fans get to know you), and give the fans the respect they deserve as being the reason behind the lifestyle you live.

And the responsibility to acknowledge the fans isn’t the players’ alone. It’s not enough for the owners to spend a few bucks on new sweaters or a new paint job and call it a day. If they’re truly thankful, as they should be, for fans support, then they need to make a concerted outreach to the fans through spending the money to make attending a game a valued event. Spend the money under the cap to keep teams together and build fan affinity. They need to make more than just a cosmetic display of gratitude.

Nobody likes a suck-up – especially when the motivation for this sycophantic activity appears to be so transparent and false. In large part, the fans are back and the best thank you we as fans can receive would be good, honest effort – both on the ice and off.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

NHL Fans – Once Bitten, Twice Shy

By Jason Menard

We’re officially now into summer. Do you know where your NHLers are? And, more importantly, do you care?

I know I don’t and that should concern the National Hockey League’s powers-that-be, because I’m exactly the type of person that they thought they’d never lose. But after a year without NHL hockey, I’ve discovered that I can more than comfortably live without it.

It’s a tragic story of lost love. In my youth, I’d faithfully watch the Montreal Canadiens whenever they were on T.V. I’d play organized hockey on the weekends and road hockey with my friends at every available opportunity. Regardless of whether I was on ice or on asphalt, I’d get swept away in my fantasy – my pre-teen bowl cut magically flowing majestically behind me like my idol Guy Lafleur as I broke down the wing.

And, as I got older and my sticks and skates went into hibernation, I’d still huddle by the radio to catch the nightly Habs’ broadcasts on CBC-French, rejoicing in unexpected Stanley Cups in 1985 and 1993, and suffering through the lows that followed. Moving back to Montreal, I rejoiced in the round-the-clock coverage that was available to me in both English and French-Language papers and radio!

As my son grew, he started to get involved in hockey as well. We own our matching Canadiens jerseys and I enjoyed teaching him the rules of the game, its history, and sharing those moments with him. Heck, my daughter would sit next to us saying “Go Habs Go,” almost from the time she started talking. Sure, at the time she thought every sport was hockey, but that’s beside the point.

But, when the lockout took that away, did we miss it? Not really. My son, who was a blossoming hockey fan, turned his interest towards other, more accessible sports, like basketball. And if we needed our hockey fix, we now were fortunate to have the London Knights close at hand.

Hockey just faded into the background. An inability to empathize with either side of the labour dispute simply left me apathetic towards the entire proceedings. And with that apathy came disillusionment. And, as a result of that disillusionment, years of goodwill and history were washed away.

Which leaves us back at square one. Like a lover scorned, I – and other fans like me – have that once-bitten-twice-shy mentality. Reports of potential settlements or progress in negotiations are greeted with nothing more than yawns or rolling eyes. The Canadian fan – once thought to be unflappable in its infatuation with the game – is now waiting to be wooed back to the game.

Essentially, our game broke up with us and, eventually, will want to get back together. But the question remains whether we will embrace it upon its return, or simply welcome it back, but remain stand-offish, not willing to commit that much of ourselves to a game again.

We’ve also found other suitors, more willing to consider our needs. In our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, sports – and specifically hockey – were culture-defining phenomena. They provided a shared experience that brought communities and cultures together. People with no common background or history could instantly strike up a conversation based on Gordie Howe’s exploits or Maurice Richard’s on-ice passion. Televised competition wasn’t as great as it is today and sport was an ingrained component of our lives.

Today we have more to distract us. We have more choice on TV – to the point where there’s probably a specialty channel that caters to your particular interest. We have the Internet, which can bring us to the farthest reaches of the Earth with just the click of a mouse. And we have more sports than ever starving for our entertainment dollar, and willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

Most importantly, we have grown to expect more from our entertainment suitors. Knowing that something else is just the click of a remote away, we’re more demanding of our entertainment providers. Shows that take extended hiatuses have difficulty retaining their audiences and fans grumble when too many repeats are shown in a row. Like any relationship, we expect regular companionship, consideration of our needs, and to be satisfied.

The NHL may have left us, but hockey fans haven’t sat by the phone, pining away for that phone call. We’ve loved, lost, and moved on. We’ve found other, often more rewarding, things to occupy our time. And we’ve learned – most importantly – that we can live without it.

Will fans eventually come back? There will be the die-hards who are so starved for hockey’s affection that they’ll come running back, forgiving all that’s gone on in the past. But there are others, maybe even the majority of people, who will be more wary of hockey’s return.

That bloom of first love has been lost forever and, no matter how hard hockey tries to woo us back, it may never be the same as it was. We, as fans, have moved on and we expect more.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved