The Future of the NHL Fan: Should the League be worried, or is this all a bunch of smoke and mirrors?

Toronto, ON The mainstream media (or rather the self-proclaimed non-basement dwellers) are calling today the make it or break it day in CBA negotiations, and hysteria has swept the hockey community. With the possibility of hockey being back in time for the holidays, one can’t help but wondering how much damage these past 82 days have done to the NHL fan base.

It is easy to swear off buying tickets, Center Ice/Game Center packages, and merchandise while the League is locked out, and quite another to follow through with it once play resumes. Some of us (i.e. me) take hockey fandom to the level of a serious addict. There have been times in my life where my “call” or “need” to travel to a live game practically consumed me. A few seasons back I estimated that I spent $30,000 on my NHL adventures (this figure also included flights, hotels, etc) that year alone. I spent the entirety of the 2011-12 season living in Japan, yet I still managed to see 5 NHL games live, and for 3 of those games my tickets were in the $300 price range. Luckily, this Lockout has helped me in kicking the habit, and that’s saying a lot.

I am the type of fan that the NHL would love to cultivate. That is, I am the fan that supports the NHL as a whole, before declaring any sort of team allegiance. I am not a Leafs fan, or a Flyers fan, or a Ducks fan, although I have supported them all. I support the NHL, and consider myself to be a hockey fan first, and generic NHL fan second. As much as the NHL loves people like us, we are the fans that they have really put on the line when they started this lockout. We have given a lot, and have officially been shat upon. Yeah, you can’t be surprised that we’re both devastated and pissed.

Team fans, and by that, I mean, fans who don’t give two shits about anything that doesn’t apply to their team, will have a harder time sticking to their NHL boycott. Team fans are essentially a fan of their team colours, which is a passion that has the power to transcend the ever changing rosters, owners, and management. Lockouts are to them mere pains in the ass. I am sure most of them will be back whether or not the League tries to win them back. Post ’04 Lockout fans are also less likely to be as disgruntled as the rest of us.

As for the League trying to win us back, I’m not sure what happened in the rest of the League after the last lockout, but here in Toronto the Leafs “gave back” to the fans by knocking a few measly dollars off of their already staggering ticket prices. Yeah, that lasted one year, and ticket prices have since shot up well past what was considered face value in 2003-04. I don’t expect the NHL to do much more than that to win us back this time around, if they do anything at all.

As for me, I would like to treat the 2012-13 NHL season like it has been cancelled, and not pay for tickets or merchandise for the remainder of the season, if we have one. That’s a huge commitment coming from someone like me, and I’m going to try my hardest to honour it. That being said, I do know my personal limitations. If someone offers me free tickets, I probably won’t turn them down, but I also wouldn’t have used MY money to pay for them. I’ve been in talks over a job placement in Winnipeg or Edmonton. If I decide to go, and there is a season, it will be hard not to go to one game when I’m physically living in the city of one of my 4 unvisited NHL rinks. Likewise, I’m in talks over a placement in the Middle East, so it will be hard not to go to a game before I leave, especially knowing I will miss most of next season, too, and that there will be no Asia League to compensate me this time.

Maybe I suck, but these are major NHL related reductions for me, and that does matter at the end of the day. Just like the fan who opts to keep his/her season seats, but decides to stop buying a new NHL jersey every year, that matters. I mean, come on, I don’t think anyone with Leafs season tickets is going to just give them up, as they know they’d be on a waiting list for years to get them back! However, maybe those fans will stop buying $13 beer from the ACC concessions, and that matters, too.

Some people believe that all these fans that have vowed to swear off the NHL full stop for this season and/or seasons to come, are just blowing smoke. That may be true in some cases, but we can’t forget that the NHL lost a significant number of fans during the 2004-05 Lockout. I still meet people that say, “I haven’t followed hockey since 2004.” That lockout did more damage to their pre-Lockout fan base than most people care to acknowledge. The crazy thing is that the last lockout wasn’t unjustified, and any hockey fan with a brain knew that it was necessary. Yet, many fans were already growing tired of the NHL. They felt like it had become too glitzy, and didn’t agree with some of their mandates like growing the game in places without ice. The Lockout of ’04 pushed their dissatisfaction over the edge. With this entirely greed-driven Lockout of 2012, only the completely naive would suggest that all fan declared boycotts are empty. I suspect there will be significant casualties in the fan community. Salvaging some portions of the season is probably the only hope the NHL has for these casualties to not reach catastrophic numbers.

One last thing that must be said before I close off this post. Whether you choose to stop supporting the NHL, or will continue to support it like nothing has happened, is entirely up to you. That said, the choice to stop supporting the NHL does not mean that these people “were never fans to begin with.” Attending hockey games and buying merchandise does not automatically make someone a fan. Nameless jerseys are $140! The cheapest seat in the Air Canada Centre is close to $60. Some people cannot afford these luxuries, and yet they are fans. Likewise, there are millions of people living in non-NHL cities and simply don’t have the opportunity to see live NHL hockey, yet somehow they manage to be NHL fans, too. If someone chooses to stop supporting the NHL, whether it’s permanently or temporary, it is because they have given a lot to the game, and rightly feel that the players and League have taken their support for granted. And, quite frankly, that’s exactly what the players and owners have done.

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