July 16, 2012

This Time NHL Owners Are Public Enemy Number One

As the NHL heads into a summer of question marks and labour uncertainty, we can certainly expect a full public relations war to be waged in the media. Rhetoric and such gamesmanship happens all the time in union environments and with collective bargaining agreements. Obviously the spotlight is significantly brighter when it comes to NHL/NHLPA negotiations.

The owners decidedly won the public relations war in 2004/05, hands down. They played the media like a fiddle. Adam Proteau of The Hockey News recently wrote about this, and he recently acknowledged his "role in the NHL's disinformation campaign at that time" with regret and disdain. It's not the true point of the article, but he apologetically hints at it. It is one of the most refreshing pieces of hockey journalism I have read in a long time.

All that being said, perhaps Proteau is being a little too harsh on himself and his media cohorts in "the hockey media who are supposed to represent (the fans)." Back then the fans easily bought into it all. It was the story that, at some subconscious level, fans, especially in Canada, wanted to hear. It comforted them somehow. Canadian teams except Toronto were in trouble, due largely to the low Canadian dollar more than anything. Canadian fans drowned their sorrows with such NHL ownership spinning, and the NHL knew it. The media was guilty of buying into it all so easily partly because this unifying story was such an easy sell.

This time around, the NHL owners will not win the public relations campaign. The NHL (and, let's be fair, the NHLPA) cost fans an entire season and a Stanley Cup playoffs back in 2005. They supposedly got their systemic fixes, at significant cost to the players and to the fans, to make all teams competitive on the ice and in the balance sheets. Somehow it has not worked, supposedly. Several teams are bleeding money, despite record league wide revenues (which is largely due to Canadian dollar spiking near parity with the US dollar more so than systemic records).

The NHL now wants more player concessions? The NHL is again willing to lose part or, who knows, all of another NHL season to accomplish that? They are willing to screw fans again?

That will not fly this time around. The owners are public enemy number one. They are seen as greedy. As we enter this apparent global age of austerity the fans will be on the players' side. Don't take from the employees pockets anymore. Fix your own damn mess. Fans want to see owners significantly revamp the revenue sharing amongst teams. Tired of bad contracts? Stop offering them? Stop expecting the players and fans to pay through the nose to fix your many mistakes.

Very interestingly, fans also want to remove the weak franchises that clearly can not survive. They would be all over that. Get rid of Phoenix and Florida and all those weak sun belt teams.

Just remember this, Canadian fans: Prior to the last lockout it was the Canadian team's with bleak futures. Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa in particular were the weak teams in need of help. Several years earlier there had even been fleeting rumours of Vancouver and even Montreal in financial difficulty. There was no appetite to remove the weak teams then, was there?

In the last lockout the NHL acutely understood their customers appetites and how to get the media to serve it to them in abundance. Winning the public relations battle was a big part of winning the CBA war. It was as masterful as it was easy.

But this time around the customers appetite will not stomach more of the same from the NHL. Hopefully not being able to win the public relations war will ensure as little disruption as possible.

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