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roy macgregor

"A disaster."

It doesn't take Andre Richelieu long to get around to his point.

"A nightmare."

Richelieu is an international expert in brand management and sports marketing. The 42-year-old Laval University professor was recently advising in Minsk, Belarus, where they will hold the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation world championship. Earlier this month he was at the Banff Centre, where he was one of the featured presenters at a forum on sports journalism put on by Mount Royal and Carleton universities.

He was asked, naturally, for his thoughts on the NHL lockout, now more than two months deep into what he believes is fast becoming the NHL's blackest and bleakest season – one that, at the grassroots level, will take another turn for the worse this morning as Kraft Foods moves to cancel Hockeyville 2013 in favour of donating $1-million to Hockey Canada affiliated minor hockey associations across the country.

"The message the NHL has sent is that 'we are stupid,'" he says. The NHL cannot possibly have any other opinion, he says, because the league has previous proof – two earlier lockouts – that the league can treat its fans in a cavalier way and they will always come back.

"That is the calculation they make," Richelieu says. "When they say 'We have the best fans in the world' the presumption is that the fans will come back. That is the best example of insult and marketing myopia I know.

"From a sports-marketing point of view I think the NHL is about to realize that the last word is what the fans have. It is consumer power. When the consumers decide to act, to send a message to the organization, then the organization has no other choice but to change things."

That message, however, has yet to take full form. With each passing day that shows no signs of resolution the fans' anger will build, Richelieu says.

He says the NHL and its players should be even more concerned about what he calls "the Superfan" than about the so-called "casual fans." Many observers are saying the casual fans will drop off, especially in weak U.S. markets.

"When you are a Superfan," Richelieu says, "you are so involved, because it is a love-hate relationship. You love it. You love it to the extreme. You will support it. You will buy, consume, spend. But when you are upset you hate it. What we do not know is how long this kind of 'upset' situation will last for the Superfans and how it will translate, because definitely the trust has been broken.

"You have to take care in relationships. Even a flower – if you don't put water on it, it will die. And this applies especially with the Superfans. If you don't take care of them, if you don't nurture this love that they have for your team, your sport, they give so much that they will feel betrayed. And they can react in such an extreme way that they can decide to walk away, at least for a certain period of time, and say, 'Look, I can live without the NHL because the NHL has accustomed me to live without it. They have broken my heart and caused me to spend my disposable income on other options. Well, I will stick with that."

Richelieu concedes that there will always be fans who will race back. "There are some Superfans who are blind," he says. "But today, with $100 the price of a ticket, people might take a step back, have a cooler head and say: 'Enough is enough.'"

Richelieu says he has seen one survey that suggest that as many as 60 per cent of Canadians claim they are not missing hockey – an astonishing figure for a game that has long been the national obsession.

The Laval professor stands among an increasing number who are saying that 2012 is vastly different from 2004-05. "The psychological mindset of the fans has changed," he says, "because for two CBAs in a row they have been told that they can be taken hostage. And what happens in the next seven years? The same circus will start again? Fans will say, 'Why should I commit? Why should I get so involved in a sport, in a team, in players that will treat me with such a lack of respect? Why should I do that?"

From a branding point of view, Richelieu believes both the league and the players association have done nothing but stumble all fall. The players association should have sent as many stars as possible off to play in Europe he says, and seek a television deal that would show the games in North American and apply pressure to the owners. As for the owners, he says, their haste to cancel the Winter Classic sets up what he calls a "PR nightmare" should the league try to start up before Christmas without the Classic set for New Year's Day. "That," he says, "would be the worst possible scenario for the NHL."

Even if the league does come back before losing the entire season, Richelieu believes there will still be significant fallout – including a change in leadership at the league level – from what has already transpired.

"It will be interesting to see what the NHL will do in order to rebuild this trust," he says. "I don't think they can reinvent the game again. Remember last time they just wrote on the ice, 'Thank you, fans'? Well, that will not do.

"Both sides showed that they didn't care about the fans, and that's the worst part of it. Fans feel betrayed. And because the trust is broken, there is a distance now between the fans and the league, the fans and the teams. How are you going to bridge this gap?

"I strongly believe that, even in Canada, the fans will not come as strongly back as they did after the last lockout, and they will not come back in the same state of mind. They will know, in the back of their heads, that they can be cheated and betrayed by the league – and it seven years it may very well start again.

"So why should I commit that much toward a product, a team, a league that doesn't care about me and will take me hostage again in seven years."