The crunch moment – a season or no season – is not many days away. The dispute between the owners and players is not about survival. Both are doing well enough. This is about one or the other getting a little more, or a little less. If there is no season, no matter when a deal comes or what that deal is, make no mistake: Gary Bettman and the NHL owners will have lost; Don Fehr and the NHL players will have lost. Nor can any of them justify their loss by arguing that they lost less than they might have, and so they won. They, all of them, will have failed. No season, no victory.
The promise of these past few days resides in the fact that Bettman and Fehr are both smart and experienced who, after weeks of harsh words and irreconcilable positions, know when to fight and when not to. The last thing needed at a moment like this is someone who can't see beyond the fight.
The fans love their game. They love their team. They love their favourite players. Their favourite players drive them crazy at times, but they do amazing things. And when they do, fans they jump up and yell and laugh, and want others around them so they can all jump up and yell and laugh together.
To the fan, nothing else matters at that moment. Not their job, not their family, not climate change or war in the Middle East. It's just them and a feeling. That doesn't make them stupid or shallow. That makes them human. They think about those other things too. Just not then.
Then the owners and players tell them they can't make a deal on how to divide the league's $3.3-billion (U.S.) in revenues.
They make the fans think about the money. The fans don't want to think about the money.
The guys who own these teams, they've got money. Owners have money. And, the fans know, they were never going to be owners. They can almost not think about the money with the players too, unless the players don't try. Unless the players make them think about the money. When a player buys a Corvette with his signing bonus, to the fans that seems cute-rich. But when he buys a Ferrari that's I'm-better-than-you, better-than-you'll-ever-be rich. That makes the fans think about the money.
They don't want to think about the money.
Money is a big part of sports. The fans know that. Money makes sports better. These players play more hours a day, more months a year, more years in a career because they've got money. They have more better-trained coaches. They can afford personal trainers. They can afford to focus to the exclusion of all else on their sport and their bodies. Make it, the players know, and they've made it for life. The fans get that.
What money does is allow players to be more of what they really are. They want to play. They want to be better. Money lets them. They want to go through a brick wall for their team. Money gives them the freedom to do it. Money makes it seem like what they do, as players, isn't about money at all. Then the players and owners make the fans think about the money, this all seems an illusion, and the fans feel like fools.
Rich people don't bother most fans. But, fans wonder, how much money does any one person need? Fans understand about being rich for now and rich for a rainy day, for themselves and for their kids. But the owners and players, especially the owners, are rich beyond anyone's needs over their lifetime and the lifetimes of their children and their children's children no matter how long they all shall live. They're rich beyond any purpose but a need-to-keep-score rich. Rich so that the money gap between them and the fans is so big it's not about the money any more. It's about them – the owners and players – and the fans. That's not nice rich.
The fans don't want to think about the money.
Collective bargaining is about the owners and the players. The fans understand that. It's their private contest; their seventh game of the Stanley Cup final. It's their world. The owners and players like to say these negotiations are about getting the game healthy and right, for the fan. But it's not about the fan. Games are about the fan. Lockouts are about the owners and players.
And the fan can live with that. They're fans. They follow everything that has to do with sports. To them, this lockout is just like another game. It's something to watch, argue about, be right about; pick out their good guys and bad guys. As fans, they made it through the last lockout in 2004. They had no season. They didn't think it was possible to have no season.
From the time they were four or five, as a player or fan they'd always had a season. Later, when they got too old to play, they still had a season. Then there wasn't one. What would they do? Even harder, how would they feel? They had a big stake in being a fan. It had taken up years of their life. Had they been wrong? Were they stupid? All those years and feelings they'd never get back.
As fans, they weren't expecting to feel what they felt. They were mad, sad, disappointed. But when the games came back, they came back. They were excited. Eight years later, the fans are still able to lose themselves in a game, but now they get more angry when things go wrong. After this lockout? They don't know. They don't know what they'll feel, and that scares them and should scare the owners and players. The owners and players have made it a game of chicken. Jam the pedal down to the metal and drive toward the headlights coming at you – and turn off just in time. The next time, for the fan, who knows.
The owners and players have the power. They decide when to play, and if they don't. The fans understand a fight can be long if something basic is at stake; a salary cap, for example. And they've found they can live with the consequences. But they don't understand this fight. The owners and players are both doing fine. They're doing a lot better than the fans. These aren't easy times. What more do these owners and players want?
The owners and players just do what they want to do. But just because they can doesn't mean they should.
The fans don't want to think about the money and the power.
There may be no season. The critical moment is approaching. Are the fans supposed to be as "mad as hell" and scream from the rooftops that they won't stand for this any longer? That they'll never watch another game? That's what they should do, they know. The owners and players, that's what they'd do. But money and power, that's their game and they know how to play it. The fans don't.
The fans don't want to occupy Maple Leaf Square. That's not them. They don't do things like that. They know that most of those involved in Occupy Wall Street or other occupy movements feel the same. They aren't activists. They're just people who see wrong and have to do something. The danger for the owners and players, for the rich and powerful, when there's great inequality in any sphere comes in what the fans or voters or citizens might discover if they do come together and share this common space. They might find a connection. They might feel a right and a rightness. They might realize just how many of them they are. They might discover this is them too. They might feel an even greater disconnect with the owners and players. They might feel a power they never felt before: the power to care together; the power to go apathetic, to not care, one at a time. In either case, to not watch.
What if Occupy Wall Street came to Maple Leaf Square ... or stayed home. The fans don't know. The owners and players don't know. Even in not big percentages, either result is devastating.
To the owners and players, the rich and powerful, the fan is saying: don't treat me as if I don't matter. Don't make me feel like a fool. Don't make me do what I don't want to do. Don't make me think about the money. I don't want to think about the money.