Monday, January 14, 2013

Some Hockey Fans Wanted A Pony

Carolina is now hockey country.

I know that sounds weird. After all, it's NASCAR country, what with the sport being based out of Charlotte. And it's college basketball country, as anyone who's ever had their eardrums blown out by a Dick Vitale game call knows. It would be college football country, if any of the three local schools could manage to combine pointing themselves at the right end zone, hiring a coach who doesn't use the rule book for Kleenex, and a willingness not to run off the star quarterback to the land of dairy and badgers.

But it's hockey country, too. In seasons when the Hurricanes are even half-decent (which is to say: not lately), the local arena is the loudest in the league. Give the local fans, many of whom are transplants from up north - they don't call the town of Cary "Containment Area for Relocated Yankees" for nothing - something to cheer about, and cheer they will. Emphatically. (Also: people around here enjoy watching people clobber other people with sticks. But I digress.)

And coming into this season, there seemed to be a lot for Carolina fans to cheer about. The team made some intelligent, aggressive moves in the offseason. Their best talent was young and hungry. They'd cleverly broken their habit of recycling their old coaches - the Canes and Paul Maurice were the R-Pat and K-Stew of the NHL - and were prepared to give successful interim coach Kirk Muller the reins for a full season. Things, in short, looked bright.

Odds are, if you're reading this, you know that things didn't quite work out as planned. The lockout of the players by the owners, which wins hands-down for "dumbest labor dispute in the history of major US professional sports", knocked the season off the blocks. Sure, we're getting a 48 game speed dating round, but to be blunt, it ain't going to be the same game. Yes, the rules will be the same, but the short, crowded schedule, the newly contorted schedules, the shortened prep time the teams have and the wear and tear that players who've been playing in Europe have put on their bodies  - these all mean that the familiar, if not entirely level, playing field of an NHL season has been tilted. Whatever happens on the ice this year, it's going to be different than what would have happened if the original, full schedule had been played.

But in the midst of thinking about this, there's still room to get a good laugh. The most recent came from a discussion on local sports talker 99.9 (surnamed "The Buzz" - why are all sports radio stations "The Buzz", "The Ticket" or "The Big Hitter"? Why can't just one of them be "The Situational Left Handed Reliever Who Gets Murdered By Right Handed Batters"?) wherein it was indignantly proclaimed that all through the labor dispute, nobody thought of the fans.

This is amusing on a couple of levels, not the least of which being that 99.9 is A)owned by Capital Broadcasting, which happens to be a minority owner in the 'Canes and B)is the flagship station for the 'Canes radio network. Good on the hosts for demonstrating some independence, but c'mon. Of course the two sides thought of the fans. They thought of fans as customers. They thought of fans as revenue. They thought of fans as sources of revenue that teams might try to hide from the players' union, which nearly produced a deal-breaking setback. You get the idea.

What they didn't do was think of the fans as a sort of dewy-eyed romantic partner, working toward a solution in order to keep from having the Cam Ward jersey-wearing fanatics from sitting in their bedrooms and writing wistful Facebook entries about how much they miss hockey. Because, to be blunt, they had no reason to, and there was no benefit to either side to do so. For the owners, the threat that the fans would abandon the sport if the lockout went on too long was actually leverage - hey, players, sure we're asking you to take a pay cut, but it beats what you'd make selling cars in Kitchener. And if the fans get too mad about missing their hockey, well, there might not be any league at all.  As for the players, holding fan desires over their own professional needs would have been a suicidal negotiating position.

And that, on a basic level, was how it should have been. What the players owe the fans is good effort on the ice, particularly for the paying customers. They're not the ones who initiated the lockout; they weren't the ones sitting on season ticket money; they're under no obligation to sacrifice part of their livelihoods to people who pay for their services - and that's what a ticket or an NHL Leaguepass is, payment for entertainment services - except as doing so makes those folks more likely to ultimately continue funding their profession.

That's not what was going to happen here, nor was it what was being asked for. Fans who don't understand that the lockout was about business - hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of business - and are mad that they didn't get the goo-goo eyes as the process went along are deluded and, dare I say it, self-important.

If they're really that upset, then they'll vote with their wallets. They won't come back to games, they won't buy jerseys, they won't listen on the radio or watch on TV. And maybe some - a few - will. (Note: If you're one of the numbskulls who is still mad at the players for striking, which they did not do, the sport may in fact be better off without you) But most won't. They may stay away for a few games; they may wave protest banners from their seats; they may wait a year before renewing tickets. But baseball and football and basketball have all shown: the diehards come back. They always come back.

Which, in the grand scheme of things, is exactly why there shouldn't have been consideration of the fans in the negotiations in the first place.
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