November 01, 2012

Silence Broken: Fans Emotional Investment Key To NHL, Players Wealth

Back in September I declared GreatestHockeyLegends.com to be a "lockout free" zone. During the labour dispute we all have been inundated with collective bargaining news from all the news sources you can handle and then some. There is nothing I can really add to the conversation. I am no expert on such matters and will not pretend to be. I am simply but a frustrated fan in this whole process, much like you are. So I consciously decided I wanted the "Hockey History Blog" to be a refuge of such infuriating topics. It is a place to celebrate the game, its history and its players.

But today I want to break my lockout silence. And I will do so with a story. This story is pure fantasy - fantasy hockey, that is. 

Back around the turn of the century I found myself completely obsessed with online hockey simulation leagues. In particular I loved (surprise, surprise) the Legends of Hockey League, where we recreated past NHL seasons. We would inherit a team (I remember having the 1948 Montreal Canadiens and the 1967 Los Angeles Kings, for example) and then carry everything forward. Using the APBA simulator we set team lines, strategies and "coached" every game of the season. Of course we began tinkering with the lineups pretty much immediately - making trades, draft decisions etc. I actually lost sleep over such decisions. I could not wait to study the game results.

I never won a championship, but I was close several seasons. I absolutely loved it. I was obsessed with it to an almost unhealthy level. I loved it just as much as I love NHL hockey today. Maybe even more so. Keep that in mind as I go forward with this story.

But not all was well in the Legends of Hockey League. New simulators were brought in, changing the dynamics to the point where it became a bit of a cumbersome chore to play the game. Salary caps were introduced a couple of seasons, which forced me to dump players I had become attached to. It was infuriating more so because I tended to build my team up for the first 2 or 3 simulated seasons, hoping for a championship run in a specific year.

Even more maddening, eventually, in every variation of the Legends League, the commissioner would shut down the league. Perhaps there was not enough interested players to fill the league at that time. Or perhaps there was so much interest that he would drop one era for another with more teams. Or perhaps the commish just lost interest himself. No matter the reason, it became inevitable we had to reboot our league - dreams were killed, hard work and, worse, emotion was wasted. 

Something that I truly, truly loved doing became something so draining that I when the final stoppage hit, I was happy to walk away. I never went back, either. I found other things to do. My love of simulated hockey leagues died - something that back then I never thought would be possible. I have not missed it.

Fast forward to today's National Hockey League. Inexplicably we are in our third lockout in as many CBA negotiations. We have already lost an entire season for crying out loud! And here we are again, on the verge of another lost season?

I honestly believed we would be back watching the NHL by mid-November. I still think we will see a season, maybe even as early as December 1st. But anything beyond that becomes more disheartening than this already is. A season starting in January is too short to be of any significance, in my mind anyway. And another lost season, as incomprehensible as that is, would be so incredibly damaging to the sport. 

What I am trying to say is people do move on. They even move from things they love so much that can not imagine not live without. Even the hard-core hockey fans can only take so much. All these lockouts, especially this unnecessary lockout that should have been solved by now, are enough for many fans to walk away. At least for awhile. If they do come back, in may never be to same with the same emotional investment.

That's what the NHL and NHLPA seem to be forgetting throughout all of this. This $3.3 billion dollar industry does not rely so much on the fan's financial investment as much as it does their emotional investment. As loyal as hockey fans are, there is always a breaking point. If this labour dispute drags on much longer, or god forbid if another season is lost, the breaking point will have been reached by so many fans. Many of the casual fans will have moved on. But, as pointed out in my story of the simulation leagues above, even the hardest core fans can be lost. 

The NHL and NHLPA are playing a very dangerous game. If they lose another season, I'm not so sure if many of us will really care anymore. 

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