The NHL lockout: One fan's perspective

Friday, 3rd December 2004

The last NHL season was a great one for me. My boys won their first Stanley Cup, I saw more games than I ever had done before (thank you NASN), and I developed a deeper understanding of the nuances of the NHL style of play.

Sadly, these euphoric feelings are not being replicated this season... Because for the NHL, there isn't one! Welcome to the NHL lockout.

Now, where to begin on how the lockout came to pass... Well, once upon a time, the NHL and the NHLPA (the players union) came up with the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The CBA was designed to make sure that the clubs and the players both got a fair deal in terms of the wages that were being paid. The CBA had a time limit and ran out at the end of the 03-04 season.

During the season the NHL and NHLPA met up to discuss what form the new CBA would take. Sadly, the two organisations had different ideas as to what should and should not be included.

Ultimately they stopped talking, and the league decided that the only way to safeguard their own position (and increase their leverage) was to refuse to run any games.

That brings us to where we are now.

If you take time to read the various reports, articles, and rants floating around cyberspace, then you will know the crux of the disagreement is that the NHL wants to introduce a wage cap system (like we have here in the EIHL). The players don't like this idea, as it limits their earning potential. The NHLPA would like to maintain the status quo, allowing players to demand ever more exorbitant salaries from their employers.

Now, the NHL is big. Way bigger than any other pro hockey league. But, compared to the other sports it is competing with in the US/Canada, it is not that big. US sports have the 'Big Four' Major League sports: American Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey (although there is a strong case to add Major League Soccer to these and call it the Big Five, but I digress). Hockey is easily the smallest of these four. It has the smallest crowds. It has the least TV exposure. It has the least endorsements (or sponsorships). Sure, hockey is a religion in Canada, but in the US (a far larger market) it's the minnow amongst the big boys.

Now, given this, engaging in a lock out is an incredibly high risk strategy for the NHL. The vital TV revenue stream is all but gone (some franchises are showing 'classic' games on local TV), the sponsors cash flow is nil. No merchandise receipts, nor gate takings. Already the NHL has reportedly laid off over half of its 'front office' staff, with more cuts likely. But it wants to hold on. If the whole season is washed out, then it can start again fresh next year, wage cap and all.

And the players? Well, about a quarter of them have come over to Europe. Some to home town teams, some to the highest bidder, some just to keep in shape.

And us fans? Well, a season without the NHL isn't all bad. The North American Sports Network (NASN) is filling the gap quite well, showing AHL and College games. It's a chance to watch some hockey we might not otherwise see, and players we might not otherwise see, which is a bonus.

And as for the future, well, I guess we just have to wait and see...

by Robb Hitchen