NHL Lockout: How Can the NHL Recover from Yet Another Work Stoppage?

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIISeptember 17, 2012

The NHL walks away from its fans yet again.
The NHL walks away from its fans yet again.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Proving yet again that people—even very intelligent ones—are simply incapable of learning from their past mistakes, the NHL has locked out its players for the second time in the past eight years (ESPN).

Hockey fans everywhere knew it was coming. The players were warned it was coming. The economics of the situation made it almost inevitable. Yet, especially from the fans' perspective, one had to figure that the NHL and NHLPA would not be foolish enough to actually go down this path again and run the risk of destroying everything that had been accomplished since the last work stoppage forced the loss of an entire season.

As it turns out, sadly, there are many fools abound and now the NHL season is in a state of indefinite limbo.

While it is easy to point fingers and cast blame, the fact remains that the lockout is here, and the best thing both sides can do now is to resolve this matter and get players back on the ice.

If the NHL hopes to recover from yet another work stoppage, the fourth in the past twenty years, and minimize the alienation of perhaps the most loyal fan base in all of sports, there are a few things they must do.

Resolve This Quickly

While that might seem like an obvious statement, there is more to it than that.

If the NHL hopes to recover from this and not absolutely ruin its relationship with the fans, then it is essential that this lockout not go down the same path as the 2004 disaster. If another season is lost due to a lockout, then I really think the NHL is in serious trouble as far as being a viable major sports league in North America.

Canada will always support hockey and the NHL, but the United States is far more fickle. Most sports fans in the U.S., for instance, aren't going to care too much that there is no hockey because the NFL is in full swing, college football is on every weekend, the MLB playoffs are almost here and the NBA is not far behind.

Oh...hockey is not on? Oh well...I'll just watch baseball, or college football or the NFL or whatever.

Indeed, for most sports fans, the absence of the NHL, especially at this time of year, will barely register on their radar.

But for the fans who care—and in particular the fans who fell in love with the game since the last work stoppage—the absence of the NHL will resonate loudly. This is what the NHL and NHLPA must recognize and address very quickly in order to minimize the damage.

The biggest factor here, in order to resolve this quickly, is for the sides to communicate. They should be on the phone with each other right now. Meetings should be getting scheduled, counter proposals should be getting drafted. Negotiations, official, informal or otherwise, should still be going on.

What cannot happen is for the two sides to give each other the silent treatment until December, like they did in 2004. That would be disastrous.

No, the sense of urgency that existed between the two sides in the summer of 2005 needs to be there now. A shortened season is not a solution, not at all. Both sides need to understand this. That does not necessarily mean that there needs to be 20 hours worth of negotiations per day. But meaningful negotiations need to take place right away.

If the two sides do nothing more than at least keep the lines of communication open right away, they will be far ahead of where they were in 2004, and that will go a long way towards ending this lockout sooner rather than later.

Be Transparent With Each Other and the Fans

If you think back to the NFL lockout, one of the things the NFLPA kept harping on about was how the NFL was not being transparent enough with them. In other words, the NFL was talking about all the money they were losing, despite record revenues, off-the-chart attendance numbers and a culture where the Super Bowl has been elevated to almost national holiday status, but they were not producing the hard data to support this.

Make no mistake about it—this NHL lockout is all about money. It is as simple as that. It's not about salary caps or cost certainty or any of that stuff we heard about eight years ago. Sure, someone might periodically say something about concerns over realignment or something like that. But really, this is all about what to do with the extra $1.2 billion in league revenue realized since the last lockout.

In many ways, it is good that things are as simple as that. All the two sides have to do is figure out a way to split up $3.3 billion in NHL revenue and then get back onto the ice. Simple, right?

Yes and no. You see, when the last lockout ended, the players agreed to a salary cap that would result in roughly a 24 percent rollback in their salaries. In exchange, the players were given 57 percent of NHL-related revenue.

At the time, it seemed like a great deal for the owners. As is often the case, hindsight is 20-20, and the players have made out like bandits under the terms of the now expired Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

But here is where transparency is so important. Most fans, casual or otherwise, would look at the players getting 57 percent of league revenue and feel that it sure seems unfair. But they won't really know why.

Why is this so unfair to the owners, so much so that the owners initial offer to the players sought to have the players agree to only 46 percent of league revenues (The Canadian Press) or 43 percent if you believe the players' math?

Why are the players so reluctant to budge from this number? Sure, they have to know that the chances of them holding onto this 57 percent share are slim to none. But why wouldn't a 50-50 split here work? Isn't that fair?

Was the offer the owners made back on August 28, where players' share of revenue would be reduced to 51.6 percent the first year and then down to 50.5 percent the second year—with no further salary rollbacks—really that bad?

Oh, and let's not cast all the blame on the players. It makes absolutely no sense for players to be signed to contracts that violate the limits the owners are seeking to impose in a new CBA.

Read Scott Burnside's commentary on the lockout, and you will just shake your head at the idiocy of all involved.

This is the sort of thing that makes fans want to run and jump off the nearest bridge. It's maddening, and even more so when it does not make sense because no one is really trying to explain the numbers or rationale behind any decisions made by either side.

If the NHL and NHLPA hope to resolve this issue as quickly as they can, and minimize extreme damage to their fan base, then they need to not only be very transparent with each other, but with the fans as well.

Fans are not stupid. More and more you see evidence of fans wanting to be in the know and to understand the fine details of the sport they love. Yes, in the end, the main thing is the action on the ice, but if the fans can be engaged in what this dispute is really about, that might help to minimize their natural reaction—that this is just about a bunch of greedy men squabbling over who gets the bigger piece of pie.

Keep The Fans Engaged

The landscape of the NHL has changed dramatically since the last lockout, especially from a fan's perspective. 

In 2004, attendance numbers were down, revenue was down, teams were on the brink of bankruptcy and the product being placed on the ice was not as good as it could be.

Fast forward to 2012. You now have the Winter Classic, a hugely successful event by any measure, and one that brought hockey back to its roots on a grand scale.

Teams are more evenly matched than ever. There has not been a repeat Stanley Cup champion since 1998. The Cup has traveled to places like Anaheim, Raleigh and Los Angeles since the last lockout. It also made its return to Original Six cities like Chicago and Boston.

Attendance numbers are up. League revenues, as mentioned previously, are substantially up. There are true superstars—like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos—for fans to really rally behind.

In so many ways, hockey has never been better or stronger.

And yet...here we go again.

The truth of the matter is that there are many fans, such as me (and probably you too if you are reading this) who will support the NHL no matter what. We are as upset as anyone about the lockout and are frustrated that these fools could not resolve this ahead of time.

Honestly, is MLB really the only sports league that has learned from their mistakes? MLB actually get a new CBA done well in advance of the old one expiring (ESPN).

Nevertheless, when this work stoppage is done and the players hit the ice again, I will be the first to welcome them back with open arms. All will be forgiven and I, along with many of you, will naively hope that this won't happen again.

But it is not a fan like me that the NHL has to worry about. It is the newer fan who may have gravitated to the league thanks, in large part, to the Winter Classic or because the Cup now calls Los Angeles home.

Those are the fans who won't be nearly so forgiving or understanding and, make no mistake about it, there are lots of them out there.

What the NHL and NHLPA must do then is to try and figure out a way to keep the fans engaged as much as possible. I believe we have seen some of that already.

Earlier this morning, through NHL.com, the NHL released a statement to the fans acknowledging how good things have been and restating the league's commitment to getting a deal done as soon as possible.

Not long thereafter, the NHLPA released a video message to the fans although I, like many others, actually felt this was more like someone trying to get my vote as opposed to the players really feeling badly about the situation.

Regardless, this is what needs to be done. If the NHL and NHLPA can keep the fans engaged, then they won't forget about the sport they love.

With the last lockout, there came a point where even a diehard fan such as myself actually forgot about the NHL. When it actually ended, it was like a bonus of some sort. I had moved on and just accepted that hockey was not a part of my sports landscape.

This is what hockey needs to avoid this time around. Video messages are a decent start. Continually updating the fans as to what is going on, what progress has been made and, if this drags on for too long, updates as to crucial dates and deadlines will keep fans engaged and interested, even if that interest borders on disgust at times.

For the players, if they truly care about the fans and this great game, then they should make a point of getting out there in the community and trying to organize events. No, they can't be forced to do so by the teams and they can't really go out there and advertise the team, but they can still do things, or host events and just be active in the community.

The point is that anything the NHL and the players can do to keep hockey firmly in the minds of the fans, even if there are no games being played on the ice, will help to avoid a true disaster. 

The End Game

Even if the NHL and NHLPA do everything right here, there is going to be some damage done. Some fans are going to bail. Even those who do not are going to be frustrated and doubtful of the honesty of either the owners or players the next time either side says how they have the best fans in the world.

Yes, we are so great that you have such little respect for us or anything that really matters to us. Thanks, but no thanks.

It goes deeper than that, though, because fan loyalty is not the only thing at stake here. If this lockout goes longer than many expect, then the NHL is going to face similar issues as it faced before in regards to TV coverage.

The last lockout was a huge factor in the NHL losing ESPN's National Hockey Night. Can the league or its players really afford to lose what little coverage they are getting in the United States via the NBC Sports Network? Not everyone has access to the NHL Network after all, and some who do, don't want to pay extra for it.

I doubt this lockout will be motivation for anyone to pay extra just to watch their team, no matter how loyal they are.

And as for some of those premium viewing packages and Center Ice-type deals, are fans really going to feel like shelling out extra money just to watch a shortened season?

Perhaps more disheartening to the hockey fan—and sports fan in general—is what might happen to the very popular HBO 24/7 series that, in large part, was popularized by the showdown between two of hockey's biggest stars, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

How anxious will HBO be to continue this series with the NHL if, yet again, the league alienates the fans they profess to care so much about? Why shouldn't HBO just focus on sports that seem impervious to the effects of a work stoppage, like the NFL?

This is just another reason why the NHL and NHLPA need to do everything they can to end this lockout and end it quickly. There is just too much at stake, on too many levels, for either side to take anything but the most serious approach to this unfortunate situation. It is not just about the fans here; it's about the viability of the sport in general.

If the NHL loses another season to a work stoppage, then I think hockey in the United States is in real trouble. There is just not enough margin for error in the USA, where the majority of the teams in the NHL are now located, to weather the mass exodus of fans who, no matter how diehard, may just have reached their breaking point.

Similarly, TV networks are just not going to want to invest more in a league that will absolutely ignore all the great things it has going for it and decide that shutting down is the only way to overcome obstacles and differences.

Whether the NHL or the NHLPA truly understands this remains to be seen. They certainly did not appreciate it enough to avoid yet another lockout.

They need to understand this now and remedy the situation very quickly, or else the end game could be the end of the NHL as we know it.