NHL fans are the biggest gluttons for punishment in all of sports. Despite currently enduring their fourth lockout or strike since 1992—which leads all major sports leagues—there is no doubt they will come back in droves when the lockout ends. Why? Because even after the NHL became the only major sports league to cancel a season back in 2004-2005, attendance and revenues recovered and have been growing to record-high levels for several consecutive seasons. The fans may be whining about being taken for granted, but the owners and players don’t care because they don’t have to. You can curse Gary Bettman five ways from Sunday and berate the players for being selfish, but they are laughing all the way to the bank because they know the fans’ furor will be short-lived.
It is impossible to root for either the NHL or the NHLPA this time, especially since the key component of the last collective bargaining agreement—a salary cap—has failed to fix the league’s problems like it was supposed to. If anything it has made things worse. Lower revenue teams are bleeding more money than ever, players are being signed to clever, cap-circumventing contracts, and the owners are willingly signing players to these deals one day and crying poor the next. Ah, so this is why the 2004-2005 season had to be canceled. Got it.
This has never been about the fans. When the NHLPA hired Donald Fehr to lead them, anyone familiar with Fehr’s track record as the leader of the MLBPA could have told you the league was heading for a lockout in the fall of 2012, despite having almost two years to strike a deal with the owners. Instead, the NHLPA waited until this summer to even consider beginning talks, and then the NHL followed that up with its ridiculous opening proposal. And all the while, hopeful fans anxiously wrung their hands together, hoping the two sides would reach an agreement. Suckers.
The truth is the fans are to blame for this mess. If they truly wanted the league to change, they would lock the NHL out and vow never to come back. But fans lead with their emotions instead of their heads, so this will never happen. The NHL and NHLPA know this and are content to wait each other out because they know they’ll have billions more to squeeze out of the fans once the lockout ends, if it ever ends. Now that’s real love.