Sunday’s news that a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement has apparently been reached by the NHL and NHLPA brings one word to mind: bittersweet. Not “hooray.” Not “finally.” Not “yes” with ten exclamation points. Not even “thanks.” “Really?” probably runs a close second here, but there can truly be no other word than bittersweet to insert here.
Yes, the NHL will have an abbreviated season. Our beloved teams and favorite players (not to mention the players and teams we loathe) will be back on the ice within a couple weeks, and the NHL will start the long slow trudge back to respectability as a league with aspirations of one day returning to the ranks of the Big Four. But make no mistake, the NHL was not one of the Big Four before this nonsense started, and it has fallen even further out of the race since. It will continue to do so even with the new season just around the corner because the damage this lockout has done is practically irreparable.
Gary Bettman and the owners look like fools for locking the players out for a third time in two decades. In the media, the players generally look like a bunch of hot-headed, selfish individuals. The animosity these two displayed towards each other during this process was beyond embarrassing. I’ve seen episodes of The Jerry Springer Show that had more class than these proceedings had. And the fans, as per the usual, were left out in the cold and given platitudes from the NHL and NHLPA about how, respectively, “we’re the greatest fans in the world” and “we just want to get back on the ice and play hockey.”
Both sides have taken the fans for granted and believe them to be suckers–and they have done this with good reason because as I wrote three months ago, many of the NHL’s fans will come back in droves despite all of this silliness–but both sides will suffer because some fans across North America have absolutely given up on the NHL at this point. The NHL is a league that has turned off fans because it has given the appearance time and time again that it does not care about them. The addicts will come back in full force, and those who didn’t take offense to the idea of these two sides bargaining like a couple of five year-olds in a sandbox will look past all the fighting, but the league’s image in the media and in the general public at-large has been severely tarnished yet again.
The NHL will continue to cater to its niche fan base and have virtually no effect on the casual viewer or sports fan, a fact which will continue to prohibit the league from regaining its former status as one of the Big Four sports. But chances are if you are a die-hard hockey fan to begin with you won’t care about that side of things and are only glad your favorite team will be dropping the puck again before too long. So hooray, hockey is back. But the league should be ashamed of itself right now and I have the sneaking suspicion that it isn’t. And that is why the league is going to suffer for a long time before it can ever hope to get back to respectability.