Thawing Fans’ Frozen Hearts

By Jason Menard

It’s somewhat appropriate that during a time much of Canada is undergoing an oppressive heat wave, the labour relations between the National Hockey League’s players and owners finally thawed.

Of course, there is the not-so-insignificant matter of both sides’ rank-and-file ratifying the deal. But after so much acrimony and so much loss, the players really have no choice but to admit defeat and sign off on this pact. And the owners’ pen-wielding hands will be nice and warm from rubbing them with glee!

Now a group of people who have built a reputation of playing balls-to-the-wall, both on and off the ice, will have to find a way to come back to the game with their tails between their legs, effectively neutered as a group by the ownership. Worst of all, there’s no time for licking their wounds – those lips will be otherwise occupied by kissing up to the fans.

That’s right. It’s not just the owners that wanted to cut the players down a peg or two – the fans, who have been subjected to a year without their beloved game, will want their pound of flesh. There’s real anger and real disappointment permeating the fan base, and it falls to the players to diffuse those feelings.

You see, the owners already weren’t the favourite people for most fans. At best there was a love-hate relationship with certain owners, but they’re a behind-the-scenes (or, more accurately, an up-in-a-luxury-box) group. The players, like it or not, are the faces of these organizations – regardless of whether they’re covered in egg.

So what do the players do? What can they do? Any public apology is just going to come across as insincere and staged. They’ve lost whatever goodwill they may have earned being “Good Canadian Boys” who weren’t as spoiled as those NBA or MLB-types. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that hockey players lost out because of their own greed – refusing to take a better deal to save the season, and being forced to swallow a much more bitter pill in the end.

The solution to this dilemma? Play the game and play it like the fans would love to play it. If you’re in the NHL, hockey is your job. But for the average fan, playing in the NHL is a dream. The realities of getting paid, a short career, and hectic travel schedules cutting in on family time are often lost on Joe or Jill Average who would give their right arm to lace up with their favourite teams just once. Because of that, the players need to come back and play hard, every night, and make the game the exciting display of dynamism that it has the potential to be.

If the lockout has done anything, it’s created an environment where excitement is going to grow in spite of itself. With so many free agents, the NHL has turned into a giant rotisserie league, wherein every fan can dream about their team going out and signing players that previously would have been financially unattainable. Each and every fan will get caught up in the potential swap meet of players and the excitement of a new season, with new hope, and new potential for all will start to stoke the flames of passion that have been cooled by the lockout.

The NHL has done a lot of damage to itself with this lockout, and both players and owners share in the blame. Hockey hotbeds like the Canadian cities and some northern U.S. locations will be able to draw upon their large fan base for whom hockey is a way of life. But it is those non-traditional markets, like the southern States that the damage will be felt most.

But like anyone who has suffered a serious wound, the NHL will need to accept that it takes time to heal. There are no quick fixes, there is no panacea that will cure all hurt feelings and salve festering wounds – but there is the belief that time heals all wounds.

If the NHL goes through with rules changes designed to speed up the game and let the players play, fans will be drawn back in spite of themselves. The game is in our blood – and no matter how much we want to freeze the players out, the fact of the matter is that hockey played at its best will warm the heart of even the most disgruntled fan.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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