CHICAGO - MAY 28: National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a press conference at the United Center on May 28, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Gary Bettman's statement to the press that "the world's greatest fans" would flock back to the NHL after an owner-imposed lockout is horribly smug, but probably right. That doesn't mean fans have to be thrilled with hearing it, though.
The NHL's collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on September 15th, and talks have stalled. The owners would like to see a 24% roll-back in the players' salaries, and obviously the players would prefer not to see that happen. This lockout, which stands to hurt thousands of people's livelihoods, is avoidable via compromise, and it doesn't seem like that is going to happen any time within the next three weeks.
This will be the third work stoppage since Gary Bettman came to be commissioner in 1993. The 1994-1995 season was abbreviated to just 48 games due to lockout. Infamously, the entire 2004-2005 season was lost when owners and players couldn't agree on terms of a CBA. The league became the first professional sports league to lose an entire season of play, and there were concerns about what would happen when the next season started. Were fans angry? Would they accept the new rule changes to make the scoring go up and the game "more exciting?" Would they be forever angered by the millionaires and billionaires fighting about sums of money that were out of reach for a vast majority of fans?
The fans re-embraced the league almost immediately. Were they disappointed by the lockout? Of course, but most figured that such a situation wouldn't happen again. Why would owners want to lose out on all of that money? Why would players? Surely the league would have a safeguard against this happening again. All 30 teams began the 2005-2006 season on October 5th, and eleven of the 15 games were sellouts. Fans were treated to "THANK YOU FANS" on the ice and goody bags under their seats. The league made the resolution of the problems about us, as though they almost knew that their actions warranted an apology to the fanbases.
Obviously, it did, because without a mea culpa, then the fans wouldn't feel valued. You only apologize to people you care about, right? The league valued their fans, or at least it appeared this way. Hockey fans responded by attending games in record number, happy that their sport had returned, and generally unaware that there was a possibility of another lockout happening.
That possibility is fast becoming reality, and in-between negotiation sessions, Gary Bettman decided to hold a press conference. In said press conference, he unleashed this gem onto fans and media alike:
"We recovered last time because we have the world's greatest fans."
Ohh, boy. Talk about missing the point yet being spot on at the same time. The league recovered because of that once; because of the efforts made to apologize and win fans of the sport back. This time? One can't help but feel that Bettman and the owners are taking fans for granted. "Oh, they'll come back." Of course fans will come back -- not because of loyalty to the NHL necessarily, but because of loyalty to our teams and our love of the sport. Fans won't let a bunch of bull-headed owners and an out of touch commissioner ruin our enjoyment of the game.
There will be alternatives, of course. Foreign leagues, the AHL, the ECHL, college teams. Hockey fans will find other ways to get their fix. They'll come back to the NHL in the end -- Bettman is right there. But with the return of fans comes indignation and a lack of tolerance for the way that the league treats them. Unfortunately it's a mutually beneficial agreement that exists between the league and the fans. Think of it as a shark and that little fish the shark allows to munch microbes and dirt off of him. Obviously, we're the little fish. Without the shark, we wouldn't survive. Without the owners, we wouldn't have a professional sports league to watch.
The owners need the fans though. Without us to clean them off and make them feel better about themselves via purchasing tickets, they wouldn't make any money. Can fans hit them where their wallets are to prove their point? Sure, but not without being a detriment to the NHL.
Fans are in an iffy position. We can complain and get as unhappy as we want. We'll fuss about the owners being out of touch, and what a little Napoleon Gary Bettman is. But our butts'll be in arena seats come whenever the next opening night is. We might not be happy, but we'll be there.