How Can the NHL Bring Back or Keep Fans After This Lockout?

The post-2004-05 lockout thank you message, as painted on New Jersey Devils ice. It’s gonna take more than that this time. By AJ Schuster on Flickr.

Yet another side effect of the NHL lockout is that people are wondering how to bring back fans scarred by a ferocious labor battle–or bring new fans into the fold–once the lockout does end.

When the last lockout ended and the 2005-06 season began, teams handed out mini Stanley Cups on opening night, held individual prize giveaways and all 30 ice surfaces had a thank you note for fans painted into them.

But sports fans, and especially hockey fans, are savvy and looking for meaningful incentives that will show them the folks in charge actually are truly sorry for bringing on another case of seasonus interruptus in less than a decade.

The Hockey News recently devoted a cover story to having people inside the game explain how they could improve it following this lockout. This includes rule changes–after the last lockout, the tie-breaking shootout was implemented–and other incentives.

Jarome Iginla suggested that goalie equipment and net sizes get slimmer. (He got support from an actual goalie, Ryan Miller, who wants some of the same things.) Sidney Crosby likes the idea of three-on-three overtime periods. Brett Hull wants the trapezoid gone and shoulder and elbow pads softened to prevent injury to others.

Jack Adams winner Ken Hitchcock wants a little less hooking and holding. Daryl Reaugh had 10 different ideas related to how the game is shown on television, including ones that could be potentially controversial, like eliminating one of the two intermissions and changes to the color of the ice surface. Bobby Holik wants the NHL to find a middle ground between their ice size and the international ice size and stop rewarding points for any sort of loss.

The NHL does a lot of experimenting and tweaking in research and development camps, though the 2012 session was canceled, and the AHL serves as a testing ground for rule changes too. In the past, the league has also implemented rules because of only a few players–the 1950s Montreal Canadiens brought about the idea of a power play ending if the advantageous team scores while Martin Brodeur‘s puck-handling meant the creation of the trapezoid.

All of these suggestions are fine and good, but they all focus on what happens when the game has already begun. How should the league focus on getting fans both old and new to even come back to the arenas so they can see whatever changes might be made?

When the last CBA was signed, commissioner Gary Bettman promised lower ticket prices. If PolitiFact were to rate that statement now, they would rate it Promise Not Kept. Maybe he should take this as a do-over and actually work to implement lower ticket prices. Especially in this tough economy, people want to go out and have a good time, but they don’t want to have to take out a second mortgage just to cover the costs.

Maybe he could even help cover the cost of some tickets, like distributing free tickets throughout the league for opening night. He makes $8 million a year. He can spare it, especially for the good of the game, since he harps on about how the NHL has the best fans.

Two-for-one tickets, reduced-price or free access for children under 12 (since they are the future of fandom), parking discounts or freebies at arena parking lots, discounts on merchandise–all of these can help bring fans back into the arenas.

Increased accessibility to All-Star Game tickets is important, too. Just out of curiosity, when the game was first announced for Columbus, I hopped on the website to consider purchasing a ticket. I have family in and around Columbus and thought it might be fun to make a trip up there to visit them, then take in the festivities of the All-Star weekend.

When I found out that tickets would be very, very difficult to come by unless I were a Blue Jackets season ticket holder, I was disappointed. Everyone loves the All-Star Game, whether they readily admit it or not. Make it easier for everyone, regardless of where they live, to get there if they have the will to do so. The host cities will be thankful for the infusion of tourism dollars.

Speaking of increased access, teams should implement improved access to the players. Hold more meet-and-greets. Waive the fees for signatures and photos. Make it easier for fans who can’t follow the team’s practice schedule–or who can’t attend practice at all, in the case of teams with closed practice sessions–to get up close and personal with the people they admire. The players love it, the fans love it, so why not provide more of it?

Furthermore, a simple message painted on the ice isn’t going to cut it this time. (Especially one where there should’ve been a comma after the you.) Fans who stuck around during this lockout, especially those fans who were also around for the last one–and/or the one before that–need to be shown a deep and meaningful apology.

How about letters of apology from Bettman himself, sent to addresses culled from databases of past NHL.com shoppers, season ticket holders, one-time and frequent ticket purchasers and so on? There’s nothing quite like a letter sent through the old-school snail mail to show that someone really, truly means it.

Hockey is a sport like no other. It’s also going through some bad times like no other. When these bad times do end and the clouds do part, the league needs to provide rewards and incentives like no other–for the greater good and a better future.

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