There is no end in sight for the NHL lockout. In fact, there is no sight of the beginning of the end of the lockout after the league cancelled two weeks of the October regular-season schedule. Still, the league is managing how it will transition back to playing whenever the sides finally reach an agreement.
There is plenty to manage.
Networks want to know when they’ll be able to fill their schedules with live, not canned programming. Fans denied their hockey fix for a third time since 1994 want to know how the league will kiss-and-make-up this time. And, judging by a meeting of Canadian corporate NHL sponsors in Toronto on Wednesday, the business community that embraced the NHL after the 2004-05 mess would like some guidance about when it can roll out its product this season.
For now they’re getting, ‘We’ll get back to you on that.’ In 2005, the NHL did a lavish roll-out to re-introduce the sport after its one-year hiatus. That involved everything from the “Thank you fans” messages painted on the ice to new rules opening up the game for more offence. The TV networks played it like the Second Coming.
The strategy succeeded splendidly, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has patronizingly noted, because of the fans’ durable love for the sport. Corporate sponsors and TV networks, too, were willing to stroke a big cheque after all the nastiness to get the “halo effect” of the NHL. But that was then.
Participants on Wednesday, including Scotiabank, Mark’s Work Wearhouse, Kraft, Molson and Sport Chek, have hundreds of millions invested in the league. Even though they have rights to the NHL shield during the lockout they are understandably nervous about how to play their ties with the league. (There is talk on social media about boycotting NHL sponsors as a means to pressuring the league.) For now, they’re going to eat their rights fee in hopes of a better day.
Another problem: while the NHL could perform a rapid start-up if a deal is reached, corporate product roll-outs tied to the NHL need a lead time of several months or more to work. What to do? Plus, when corporate Canada gets a cold, the TV networks get pneumonia. The message on Wednesday was, among other things, look at the NBA last year. It had a lockout till December and a reduced 66-game schedule. Yet its business and fan metrics were never better by the end of the season. In short, things may look bleak, but your customers will forgive if you’re suitably remorseful about the lockout. Just give them LeBron James back.
Or, in the NHL case, Sidney Crosby. There were no guarantees or firm timetables from NHL chief operating officer John Collins about when to expect Crosby back. According to sources in the meeting, the partners appreciated the love they got from the league executive and his team or NHL corporate handlers.
The biggest flaw in the NBA analogy is that the basketball boys hadn’t missed games since 1998-99. The wounds of the NHL’s last implosion seven years ago are fresher in many minds. As in, do it to me once, shame on you. Do it to me twice, shame on me. A banal message of thanks on the ice won’t cut it this time. There is no rules revolution to juice the on-ice product. The flush of new arena revenues has washed through the league. The Los Angeles Kings’ ADHD fan base, so assiduously pursued by the league, has moved on from its Stanley Cup to worship Steve Nash and the Lakers (heck, the Kings’ owner is selling them).
On that front, the NHL had no answers for its partners Wednesday.
While the NHL fiddles, you can burn through a catalogue of great games courtesy of Hockey Night In Canada. Each Saturday while the lockout drones on, you will have a choice of five classic games to choose among for HNIC: Lockout Part Deux. Okay, they’re actually calling it HNIC: Your Pick.
Fans can vote at CBCSports.ca/YourPick or at Facebook.com/HockeyNightInCanada for the October 13 show. Choices include Guy Lafleur beating Don Cherry’s Bruins in Game 7 of the 1979 playoffs and Nikolai Borchevsky scoring the winner as Toronto beats Detroit in Game 7 of the 1993 playoffs. Or Mario Lemieux’s triumphant comeback after three years of cancer treatment.
The next five games will be posted on Tuesday, October 9 for the October 20 broadcast. And so on until the lockout ends. Hopefully we can see a relevant Coach’s Corner for the historic games. Or else Don Cherry can just complain about fat players on the Marlies ad nauseum.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article contained incorrect information, which was removed.