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The More Things Need to Change...
By Mike Haggett
Published May 31, 2004

 

It almost seems like a time capsule has picked up the NHL and professional hockey and taken it back to 1973. The WHA is about to be reborn, NBC has signed on to carry NHL games and the buzz word is lockout.  The feeling is eerie to say the least.

As I have watched the “real season” this spring, I stare into my 27” screen and get lost sometimes in all the bone crunching hits and spectacular saves. “What about next year?” I think. “What about the fans?”, I ponder in my mind. I scan through the various websites looking for information and I read where it is reported where some Montreal Canadiens players have put their homes up for sale, meanwhile the Calgary Flames are on my television taking care of the Detroit Red Wings in six games. I read where the Carolina Hurricanes cut off ice payroll by 20 percent as a “cost saving measure” while I watch the San Jose Sharks eliminate the Colorado Avalanche. As the Tampa Bay Lightning are battling the Philadelphia Flyers, I read where the Bolts offer free beer for any new season ticket holder signups during the first two games of the series. A total of 25 people sign up despite back to back sellouts at the St. Petersburg Times Forum.

NHL hockey is a very fragile and fickle sport of the major four. Sure, the ice gladiators are by far and away number one in the Great White North, but here in the US, outside of the snow belt states, hockey is locally popular at best. I was looking around various internet chat boards as I normally do, and one post on a board has stuck with me for a couple months now: Hockey shouldn’t be anywhere where water doesn’t naturally freeze outside. Well, there goes half the markets right off the top. The idea that hockey can grow in regions where it is not mainstream and will never be mainstream was bad judgment on someone’s part. Why does the NHL have teams in Phoenix and Miami and no teams in Green Bay or Seattle? Sure, they aren’t as large of a TV market as Miami and Phoenix, but does it matter when no one shows up to watch in person, let alone watch on TV?

The fact remains that large market teams raise the prices fro everyone including the small market clubs and every paying fan in every arena across North America. Enough is enough. The fans are victims of high ticket prices because free agent spending has got way out of hand. Attendance at arenas and TV ratings are way down. The only way the bills get paid by many teams is by the diehard working blue collar fans that shell out the money and show up at the rink every night. It is great that teams can name their price for tickets in Detroit and Denver since demand is so high, but what about the fans in Edmonton? What price do they have to pay to have a competitive club every year? The answer right now is too much.

So here we are, the small market fans. We show up dawned in our $250 jerseys, paying $100 for a seat at the game, eating $5 hot dogs and drinking $8 beer. We do our part by contributing $2000 on average a season to the teams we adore, yet it isn’t enough. The average fans with a family of four can maybe afford to get to one game a year, and for many of us, it’s the thrill of watching neutral zone trap hockey (a subject for another discussion). Yet we pay, despite the fact GM’s generally continue to pay players more than their budgets can handle, and the league office puts teams in places where most people have only seen a curved twig in a city park. The teams that are in financial trouble are so because most fans will not show up night after night to pay to watch a losing product, and that the teams operating budgets are more than they can afford trying to be competitive.

Why should it be against the unwritten law for Edmonton to be able to compete with Detroit? Edmonton shouldn’t have an economic disadvantage. I think it is an absolute riot that the Stanley Cup Final between Calgary and Tampa Bay shows that money in a sense means nothing. Smart GM work, an excellent scouting department, good coaching and a bit of luck sometimes is all it takes for younger, lower end payrolls to out duel older, higher end clubs. Edmonton has brought some great young talent into the league and can keep very little of it once the players become free agents. If I am an Oilers fan, I am greatly discouraged. It’s no wonder why I look around at a half full arena every night with more fans wearing opponents jerseys that the home town club. I see great young talent move on to other clubs via trades or free agency, because the team can’t afford to keep it. Since the team can’t afford to keep it, interest in the team is down because they are not competitive, hence the poor attendance. A once proud and successful franchise is now economically damned due to the current structure. The diehard fans hang on, renewing their season tickets, hoping and praying that something will change and the winning tradition will return to Northern Alberta. They pay the bills that try to help keep the team afloat, when they have every right to be competitive. For me, those fans are the true heroes of this game. Without them, this league would have folded by now.

Players always are the first to say how much they enjoy playing in front of full houses and how the fans are the greatest anywhere. They are also the first to say that they are disappointed when the fans don’t come out to support them. The thing that baffles me is that if they truly believed that, they would be willing to sit down with the owners and work towards restructuring. Conversely, the owners need to get together and share revenue and help each other out, and by doing so, helps the players out by raising average salaries. The system is broke and it needs a serious overhaul, and both sides need to get honest about it. The players and owners alike can have their cake and eat it too. If competitive balance can be achieved, ALL teams are on a even playing field. If the fans of the teams in Pittsburgh, Edmonton or Miami have as much of a shot as the teams in Denver, Detroit or Philadelphia, then they are going to show up and pay to support it. Thirty teams playing in front of near packed houses every night of 16 to 18,000 is some serious cash. It can be done. The owners win because they make money, the players are happy because they live a comfortable life, and the fans are happy because their team has a chance to win everyday. Some might call this parody. I call it smart business.

The league and the players association are at a crossroads here and it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Who is this CBA really all about? Is it about the “lying” owners? Is it about the “greedy” players? Or is it about the fans in places like Edmonton or Detroit? My point is a fan in a small market shouldn’t have to sit in the penalty box in the game of competitive balance. The league owners and players need to wake up to that.

ODDS AND ENDS: A tip of the hat in store for both Adam Oates and Joe Juneau as they embark into retirement. Oates has been arguably one of the premiere centers in the league for a long time and Juneau has been a favorite of mine for years… Anyone as mad as I am about the TV playoff coverage this season? The NBA on US outlets ESPN and ABC has really screwed the NHL this year with erratic start times and two day delays between games. It will be good to get US national coverage to NBC if there is a season next year… I read where Don Cherry and The CBC are parting company?!?! Grapes is, well, open about his feelings and sure he’s taken some heat, but from a marketing standpoint, who is going to draw more ratings for intermissions and post game? Crazy… Best of luck to Ken Dryden as he attempts for election to the House of Commons in the upcoming federal election. If his political career is anything like his hockey career, the shots against the Federal Party will be blocked in Ottawa.

 

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