The clock is ticking on a new collective bargaining agreement for the NHL, and if a deal is not reached by this Saturday, the lockout will officially begin.
The process of negotiating a new agreement does not simply boil down to the needs of the players vs. the needs of the owners. Thousands of workers are directly affected by the state of the NHL, including everyone from parking attendants to concession salespeople to merchandise vendors.
And even putting aside money and jobs, this lockout will have a huge effect on those who simply love the game.
It would seem that the fans, while not directly involved in the labor negotiations nor the monetary implications of the new CBA, are in some ways at the center of this power struggle. The NHL and NHLPA have expended time and energy to get the fans on their side, as if the emotional weight of those who watch will force the hand of the other side.
Gary Bettman tried to put on an optimistic face by declaring that “We recovered well last time because we have the world’s greatest fans” (ESPN).
You know what Gary? You’re right. You do have the greatest fans in the world.
You are fortunate enough to be the commissioner of a sport that, even when you cancelled an entire season, not only returned to the stands but tuned into the Outdoor Life Network in order to watch on television. You happen to preside over a league that has a relatively small but undeniably rabid fanbase who simply wants to see the game played, and played well.
Hockey fans now bear the knowledge that their sport is the only one in North America to ever lose an entire season to a labor dispute, and it happened on your watch.
But before we dub Bettman the villain, let’s not forget the way the players use fans as well.
The players currently receive 57% of hockey-related revenue, a very reasonable share when compared to the similar sports of football and basketball. As contracts have inflated in length and value over recent seasons and small-market teams struggle to stay afloat, that chunk of revenue being taken from the owners makes it more and more difficult to maintain parity in the league and keep the sport as a whole moving forward.
Stalemates like this one do not happen without both sides wanting too much.
Of course, fans tend to have a closer relationship with players than with owners, but this does not absolve the players from their obligation to the fans.
Negotiation processes have been so unsuccessful that it is clear that the players are as unwilling to go to the table with a serious, fair collective bargaining agreement as the owners are. Tweets citing how badly players want to get out on the ice have little basis in reality as these discussions continue.
At the moment, fans are nothing more than a pawn being manipulated by both sides of the problem, and if hockey fans are truly the “greatest fans in the world,” then their loyalty lies in the sport, not the league or even the team they root for.
Should a lockout officially begin, fans don’t simply have an opportunity to make a statement; they have an obligation.
An effortless way to make our displeasure heard would be to unfollow all hockey entities on Twitter. Not just the league, not just the team, not just the players, but everyone. Twitter has become a medium where it is easy to detect trends, and a sudden plummet in the number of followers for the official Twitter handles of teams, players and league-affiliated organizations would send a message.
The message would have no true economic impact, but in effect it serves as a warning shot. A mass migration away from these Twitter handles would make waves in the media, and show the NHL and NHLPA that fans are acutely aware of what is happening, and we are incredibly displeased.
Once the deadline has passed, if the league and players continue to drag their feet fans are obligated to make an economic impact.
How do fans do this? John Buccigross, hockey sage of ESPN, outlined the strategy very simply for the die-hards:
How do you get your point across? Cancel your Center Ice package before it automatically renews. Cancel your season ticket package and go to 5-10 games. Get season tickets to a local college hockey team. Stop buying hockey sweaters. Watch playoff games on TV. Save all that money, buy a nice pair of skates, and go skating two or three times a week. The End.
As fans, we all must adhere to Buccigross’ advice. Season ticket plans should be cancelled the moment the lockout begins. Subscriptions to NHL media outlets like Center Ice, the NHL Network, NHL magazines, etc. should be cancelled as quickly as possible.
Money taken directly out of the pockets of all those squabbling at the table will show everyone that the millions and billions of dollars they are fighting over can disappear very, very quickly.
Most of us are fortunate enough to have junior, college and AHL teams nearby to keep our blood pumping, but even those of us who do not should universally feel better about giving up our hockey access in order to show that this sport is not something we follow casually when times are good, nor is it something we follow blindly when times are bad.
If we are to be used as pawns in sound bites, tweets and statements to the press, let us make our own statement, that we love hockey for the sport, not the league.
I challenge every hockey fan who reads this to act on September 15th should the NHL and NHLPA fail to reach an agreement.
Unfollow all of them on Twitter.
Cancel any hockey-related subscription you have, from tickets to television to print media.
Send pictures of yourself through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. depicting your hockey jerseys being stowed in the attic, taking team apparel out of your room and supporting lower-tier hockey teams.
We have all been dragged into this struggle whether we like it or not, and so we must make ourselves heard.
Dan Kelley has been a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist since 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @dxkelley