Jarome Iginla generally speaks for his team, the Calgary Flames, but on Monday it sounded as if he were speaking for all players when it comes to wooing back the angry and the disenchanted among the NHL’s fan base.
Essentially, Iginla made two points: the fans have a right to be unhappy; the players’ primary role in getting back on their good side will be to provide an entertaining product, worth watching, once the season starts on or about Jan. 19. If the players can deliver quality content, then Iginla believes the rest will fall in place, and that fences damaged in the 113-day lockout will be mended.
“It’s been challenging and hard on the fans,” Iginla said. “I know a simple apology doesn’t make up for it.
“We know we’re going to have to win back fans. We know they’re rightfully upset and some may be a little turned off. That’s the business side, that’s the ugly side and hopefully that’s behind us and we can move forward and not go through this again for a very long time.”
Iginla’s mea culpa echoed through the Winsport Arena in southwest Calgary Monday, where 24 players gathered for an informal training session, many of whom had practised here throughout the fall, but were leaving to rejoin their respective NHL teams.
“There’s not much the players can do except to play their hearts out,” Flames forward Michael Cammalleri said. “I think our game, the game of hockey, lends itself to that. Once you watch one game, and a guy blocks a shot with his face, or plays with a broken hand, or lays it all on the line for the cause, it lends itself to fans realizing quickly what hockey players are all about.”
Washington Capitals defenceman Karl Alzner fears there could be a backlash, noting: “The fact that there’s only half-a-season left, it will make it easier for fans to say, ‘you know what? I’m just not going to come for this half-a-season and see how I feel next year and then decide.’ The fact that it’s only 48 games will make it easier for people to sit out a few, which is going to suck, but if we play well, then hopefully, they’re going to buy back in.”
In general, it appeared as if the players were prepared to share the blame for the lockout, even though they were prepared to play the 2012-13 without a collective agreement in place. Donald Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, took pains throughout the process to remind everyone that NHL owners were responsible for bringing play to a standstill.
Publicly, fan reaction ranged from anger to bitterness to apathy, although it remains to be seen how that translates into action. There were also anger, bitterness and apathy following the 2004-05 lockout as well, but it tended to be short-lived. Instead, the NHL saw record revenue growth during that seven-year span.
In Edmonton, as a handful of Oilers players worked out at a southside sports complex, a handful of beer-league players stopped briefly to watch, neither frustrated by the lockout nor excited to see the jerseys on the ice once again.
“It’s nice to see them back, but I’m not making an effort to go watch them,” said Bob Turko, 65, a one-time season ticket holder who gave up the seats years ago as costs began to rise under former owner Peter Pocklington. During the lockout, Turko said he watched junior hockey, football, university hockey and the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings. He didn’t find himself missing the NHL, joking that the lockout was an opportunity missed for his league, its players each 55 years old and up. “I was going to call [Oilers owner] Daryl Katz and say, ‘we’ve got 150 guys here, in shape and ready to go,’” Turko said, smiling.
Still, traditional markets in Canada and through the northern United States seem better equipped to deal with the threat of a boycott or a backlash. Other more fragile markets, such as Colorado, where T.J. Gagliardi plays, face greater challenges. The Avalanche previously won two Stanley Cups, but the team has fallen on hard times of late, and it has translated into a significant dropoff at the box office.
“The biggest thing is to win,” Gagliardi said. “Everybody loves a winner. Fans that are bitter with the way things unfolded, they’ll always want to be part of a winning team. That’s No. 1.
“No. 2, hockey’s an exciting game. If you play with excitement, you don’t trap it up and have that boring style, it makes fans want to come out and watch more. Our team, we’re more of an offensive than a defensive team, so hopefully that’ll be a little bit of a lure to have them come back.”
Defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, who has divided his NHL career between two radically different markets – Florida and Calgary – believes the challenges awaiting his former team, the Panthers, are different than the ones facing his current team, the Flames.
“Up here, there are lineups for tickets,” Bouwmeester said. “There’s a view that if someone doesn’t want them, someone else will pick them up. Florida? It’s almost like they have that group of hard-core fans, but then there’s everyone else and they might not even know [NHL hockey] was gone.
“Here, you’ve got the people who are really upset, and almost offended, because they couldn’t watch hockey. People are upset. We’re upset. Everybody’s upset. Hopefully, the year’s going to be so compact and so close, maybe that competition will bring a lot of people back.”
Cammalleri made a valid point – things would have been far worse had the two sides not been able to forge a new agreement and lost another full season.
“That’s a big factor in keeping hockey’s fan base – that the season didn’t dissipate again and that we’re back at it,” he said. “That’s another reason it’s important to have a long agreement – so we can present a long term of labour peace to our game and our fan base.”
Iginla echoed that sentiment.
“I’m happy it’s a 10-year deal,” he said. “Hopefully, hockey doesn’t have to go through this again for a very long time. Maybe we’ve learned on both sides and won’t go through this again.”
With a report from Josh Wingrove in Edmonton