The bitter pill of NHL fandom

(Photo: Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Here we are, angry again. We just want hockey back. We don’t want to hear any more about revenue splits, or term lengths, or bargaining rights, or…

The list goes on, right?

The media lights up at the slighest hint of an agreement; some of us get wound up by the news, whether or not we believe something might actually happen. It’s absurd. In a cycle that began in September and has been repeated again and again, he are back to ‘again.’ For more than a month, so close have things been that everyone expresses disbelief that we are still where we are. No hockey. No apparent application of logic. No hope.

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And yet, here we are, still talking about it. We clearly care. We care because, even as we have found other things to do with  our time, we miss the emotion. There’s a connection to hockey that comes from our earliest days. We may lament that it’s one of the few examples of a unique Canadian culture, but there’s no denying that. We care because it’s not just in our blood, we care because it’s something we all know and share.

Canucks fans love their heroes. Other fans hate our heroes. In the middle, we have common ground. We are given an outlet for our aggression, an outlet that in many ways was once only expressed in the streets and on the battlefield. This isn’t an overwrought analogy, this is truth. That feeling in your gut that pops up now and then, symbiotic with thoughts of hockey? That’s your emotional core, screaming out for release.

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Hockey gives us a chance to share a sense of community – and it’s not just on Saturday nights. We joke about water-cooler chatter, but in Canada, hockey is so often the water-cooler chatter. It may not be vital to our survival, but it’s part of our every day lives. We care.

But that’s where NHL fandom is finding its troubles. We care about great plays, about aggression and about winning. To us, that’s what the game is. But we are also willing to shell out big bucks on it.

There should be no doubt that despite what we might think about the owners’ or the players’ positions, they still care a whole lot about hockey. They wouldn’t be drawn to it if there wasn’t an interest on their part. The difference, though, is the overriding factor- they are in this to make money. Say what you will about how realistic an owner might be if he doesn’t own the Canucks or the Leafs or the Rangers or any of the other half-dozen highly profitable teams, but that is the primary motivation for all. One only needs to consider the experience in Phoenix to see that.

Greg Jamison, the current prospective owner of the Coyotes, has secured himself a deal that will underwrite most of the (ridiculous) costs of owning a team in Glendale. He may be a hockey fan, but buying the Coyotes isn’t some altruistic notion about ‘the good of the game’. It’s about dollars and cents.

(Of course, this is also the reason that Jamison’s plan continues to appear to be a pie-in-the-sky idea and also the reason why we speculate that the investors he refuses to name don’t actually exist. Maybe he should start talking about mythical Florida investors, though that stunt is usually done to shake out who the team’s real owner is.)

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The dollars and cents have turned our love of the game into a bitter pill. We make think we are fans, but we are really consumers. ‘The game’ doesn’t care about us; it’s the fantasy, it doesn’t know you exist as anything other than a money-spending presence. You’re the drunk bar patron, who thinks the charming server is being nice to you because they want you to ask for their phone number; if you were sober, you’d remember that the last thing they want is your phone number, they just want you to leave a good tip.

When you come to understand the relationship in these terms, it becomes a whole lot more depressing. That machine that prints money, the one we all dream about? Well, for a NHL owner, you, the fans, are the money-printing machine. 

Of course, there is the reality that without the fans, hockey doesn’t happen. Your money is needed. But the way that the game has been manipulated in North America is now working against the fans’ interest. Yes, the ‘arena experience’ is meant to keep ‘fans’ happy; but look at it from another angle, owners are merely looking for ways to convince their consumers to do what they are already inclined to do, to part with their hard-earned money with a minimum of thought.

So that’s who we are, not fans, but consumers. If, like most people, you are upset about the lockout, perhaps you should spend time reflecting on your relationship with the game. The owners have felt comfortable taking a hard stand against the players because even if hockey goes away for while, the owners know that enough of us will be back that much of the current chaos will be brushed off as water under the bridge. Thinking of yourself as a ‘fan’ just conceals the true reality from you – you are a bag of money, from which the powers that be want to extract as much as possible.

So, ask yourself, if you are upset, are you willing to take control of this relationship? Or will you continue on, as you always have, buying jerseys while eating overpriced hotdogs, popcorn and beer?

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Only when the word ‘fan’ is returned to its original meaning, separate from ‘consumer,’ will those who watch hockey have any real influence. People have one input into hockey – their wallet. If you want to really get mad, get mad at your spending habits. Stop dreaming of hockey getting back, start thinking about how you are going to take charge of the relationship.

Cancelling your cable *until* the lockout ends? Doesn’t that undermine the point you are trying to make? The owners know you’ll be back, ready to pay for your cable. No, the way you take charge is not buy merchandise, to not pay for the fancy cable extras – yes, no NHL Centre Ice or NHL Network – or even paying attention to team sponsors. It means taking charge of what you do when you go to a game (if you are willing to go at all). Don’t pay for anything that can be considered what Jonathan Willis has called ‘auxiliary streams of revenue.’

If you are going to let hockey back in your life, don’t forget how mad you are now. Don’t be so easy to forgive. You are the reason the games are there; you do have influence. But it’s not easy. That’s the truth.

  • I tried it at home

    Amen. I love this sport and the NHL is the greatest hockey league in the world, but I know that I’m being taken for granted. So I have committed to spending 0 money on merch or tickets this season. Which won’t be too hard really, since a half season is pretty much a shameless money grab, in my opinion.

    I’ll still be watching, as always, but with no monetary investment.

  • puck-bandit

    Great read; you hit the heart of the core issues, the fan issues that is.
    I don’t have a water cooler in my office, but a tap outside of it, and we do converse there as well, hockey is the only language spoken in my office.
    I took the Blue Pill when I was born, and it has become part of my DNA, that to would be hockey.
    I have been dedicated nightly, getting up at 1:am to watch our Jr. Guy’s, that’s true dedication, and want to thank my staff for letting me skive off for all the games, to include the Spengler.
    I no longer blog on the issue of greed, or who is to blame, just that silly little disc that I’m addicted to.
    Was I excited today; you bet, but who moves first. Easy answer; the fans did, just because of our dedication to hanging on with all kinds of hope.
    Will a deal get done? I say probably not. Will I give up; not likely.
    If anyone has Don’s or Gary’s private email, could you please send this to them. I seem to have more money to spend, and am missing those $200.00 seats that I pay for.
    Time for “them”, like the Horror movie “they” to make a move and get this done. We are now at the door of Doom, it’s time, so sign and we can get on with our lives.