The NHL wants to win back its fans as the disastrous 2012-13 lockout comes to an end.
(While it's only three days since the fans awoke to the news that the NHL and NHLPA had come to an agreement, it seems like an interminable wait to get the Collective Bargaining Agreement ratified.)
Competition will begin Jan. 19 (source: TSN.ca) and the return of players in their familiar uniforms and colors will probably be enough for most fans, despite the anger that was shown while the two sides were dancing with each other for the better part of four months and no hockey was being played.
It's not just this year's lockout that has left a bitter taste, it is the fact that it is the third lockout in the last 19 seasons. All of these lockouts have taken place under the not-so-watchful eye of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Fans don't want a lot of "sincere" apologies, whether they come from the players or management.
If we are going to be completely honest about this, what do the players really have to apologize about anyway? They were locked out by Bettman and the owners.
That group was seeking to reduce percentages of revenue paid to players and other conditions that hurt the players. The NHLPA was merely trying to limit its losses.
There may be a few tangible things that can be done to show the fans a bit more concern than a well-rehearsed mea culpa.
Start off with the Center Ice Package. This is something tangible that all fans will appreciate. Give it away for this truncated season.
Absorb all the costs involved and let fans watch all the out-of-town games they want.
This is a real gesture that will send a message to the hard-core fans. If you are a Rangers fan, you get to watch your team play Montreal at 7:30 p.m., and then get to see the Vancouver Canucks or defending champion Los Angeles Kings at 10:30.
Four months of hockey doubleheaders is a pretty good way to win back your biggest supporters.
In markets where sellouts are not guaranteed, offer 2-for-1 tickets for fans. Cities like Phoenix, Miami (Florida Panthers) and Columbus may be able to take advantage of this.
In other cities where sellouts are all but guaranteed, give those fans free tickets to preseason games next year. It's a small gesture, but it's something.
Reduced rates for concessions and souvenirs might be a decent idea for this season as well. Teams make big money on beer and food mark-up. Why not put those profit margins on hold for a half season?
Young fans might look kindly on having autograph sessions with the players. Minor league teams like the Chicago Wolves do this regularly. After the games are over, maintenance workers set up autograph stations on the ice and fans go from table-to-table over a 45- or 60-minute period.
These are small gestures that might help. The best thing, however, will be the passage of time. Going 10 years without any additional labor problems would be the best thing for the fans over the long haul.
The new agreement (still unsigned as of Jan. 9) would seem to assure that.
The other issue that needs to be addressed is the position of NHL leadership. Bettman has shown that he can increase business and revenue for the league, but he is undoubtedly known as the lockout commissioner.
He may have helped the teams make a lot of money over the years, but he is not a good front man for the league (source: EdmontonJournal.com).
He needs to go away. He can do this on his own or the league's owners can vote him out (after they accept the new CBA).
But getting Bettman out of the commissioner's chair would be the best way to win fans back for years to come.
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