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

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