NHL fans to NHL leadership. (Pic from iamthenordicswede.blogspot.ca)

Elliotte Friedman wrote a must-read column titled “NHL could learn from baseball’s labour peace” yesterday that helped me put a finger on the exact feeling I’ve had about the NHL’s most recent lockout, but had previously been unable to pin down in text form.

A choice passage from his post:

Only two leagues have ever cancelled their championships for labour reasons: Major League Baseball in 1994 (player strike) and, of course, the NHL in 2004-05 (owner lockout).

Since MLB returned to work in 1995, it hasn’t missed anything. That means the NHL and NHLPA are heading into completely uncharted territory. There is no case study that hints at what revenues are going to look like on the other side.

Now, we’ve heard Bettman say that everything will be okay “because we have the world’s greatest fans.” But, the question I’d ask the individual players and owners — who really have the most to lose here — is: what if he’s wrong?

I am so, so certain he is. I feel like my job makes me a pretty central hub for hockey fan opinion, and I cannot tell you how many (ex?)fans are claiming to be done with the league. Actually, wait, I can: lots.

Friedman never directly says it in the piece, but I think the implication is exactly what I’ve been trying to put into words for awhile now: Gary Bettman is overestimating hockey fans passion for the NHL (my words, not his). Something about the current mess made me tag this post with both “final straw” and “camel’s back.”

Bettman has seen the fans come back time and time again during his tenure, and is unwisely taking the fans for granted once more.

What he doesn’t realize, is that hockey fans love hockey, not the NHL. They love the Stanley Cup, but it doesn’t belong to the league. They love pond hockey, which is why the league’s heart-string twanging nostalgic playoff commercials are so widely beloved. There is no loyalty to some “shield,” the way Roger Goodell refers to the NFL. There’s hockey, and goddamn is it a terrific game.

Even if the league does get it figured out and only a half-season is missed, I’ll call it now: the fans aren’t coming running back this time (unless it happens like, soon-soon). There’s only so many times you can abuse someone before they snap. Some people have shorter fuses than others, and I’ve talked to people who’ve gone from anger to apathy this time, which as Elliotte implies, should be petrifying for the NHL.

I received a lengthy email from my Dad this weekend (who as I may have mentioned, played some NHL hockey himself), who wrote about talking with people in his daily life who A) of course have no idea what the issues really are and don’t care to know, and B) who don’t give a shit. Actually, that’s basically a direct quote:

Like myself, most people don’t know or understand most of the issues but the real truth is, no one really gives a shit.

That’s the most succinct way to describe where most people are at right now. They’re over it. Last lockout was “Grrr, hockey.” This time it’s “Hockey, meh, those guys are all fucking idiots I’m over it.” And from what I can tell, a huge number of fringe fans mean it. (And we had just hooked the famed Sportsguy Bill Simmons! Dammit.)

And the men in charge seem so lost in their own private battle that they can’t see the forest for the trees, which makes it even scarier.

More Friedman:

We’re probably about a month or two away from really realizing how long this is going to go. But, even if this season is saved, the scars will be visible and deep. All of that anger gives Bettman and Donald Fehr plenty of ammunition to maintain hard lines. They don’t care what the fans think, and, in times like this, they are both paid extremely well to ignore public pressure.

“…paid extremely well to ignore public pressure.” Dead true, dead ridiculous when your revenues are created by that same public.

I’ve written before about how the players hatred for Gary Bettman is hindering the two sides from being able to reach an agreement, and that’s making things more and more frustrating as the days tick by. As much as you don’t want to make it about one man (or two), you can’t fight the feeling that both the owners and players are a little uneasy about the flippant nature with which Bettman (and even Fehr) are throwing away yet another season. Players aren’t lawyers either, and must feel helpless to move this process along right now.

And what Friedman says there rings true: those two are paid extremely well to do what they do (and have both shown a willingness to miss games), because their livelihoods, their incomes, their reputations hang in the balance of whatever a deal looks like when this is all said and done. If Fehr or Bettman come out of this losing badly in a lopsided deal, they’re the ones whose reputations get tarnished (combined with that of the league, which is collateral damage). So for them, there’s selfish reasons to win at all costs too. The game is played on the ice, but this is their chance to be on the battlefield, be the centerpiece, be the ones playing. It’s selfish bullshit.

I know a concept of creating a new league far down the road seems ridiculous as we sit a mere month in, but watch this lockout spill over into the 2013-2014 season and beyond (a possibility which has been posited by a few people). North Americans will not continue to exist without a top-end pro hockey league. I don’t even know what I’m saying here, really, but I just see no way we go years without one. Not many people consider their hockey allegiance tied to the NHL.

I realize a new league is a tangential topic probably best reserved for another post, so to tie it back to my original point: this lockout is going to royally fuck-up the NHL. If overall attendance is down after a return, which it would be, another of Friedman’s points gets heavier:

In every NHL game there must be a winner and a loser. By definition, 30 teams can’t put “a good product” out there. Fourteen must miss the playoffs, and some of them are going to have horrible seasons.

What does that mean for franchises and their values, particularly in markets that are already struggling? Season-ticket money is collected for 2011-12, but there’s always next year (we hope). And, how would that impact player contracts? After all, if revenues decrease, escrow losses increase.

Good luck, teams from non-hockey markets who aren’t kick-ass out of the gates. Gooood luck.

There will be many people who, like so many on-again off-again terrible relationships, will return. But there’s also a great many number of people who are too proud to return to the person who’s kicked dirt in their face.

The two sides aren’t even close on a reasonable settlement. They’ll meet tomorrow, still be miles apart, then break off talks for god knows how long (while cancelling another month of games).

I recently read a piece on how smart Gary Bettman is, and there’s no doubt that that’s absolutely true. But as most of us know, there’s street smart and there’s book smart. Gary’s the latter, and if he’s missing the tone on the street, he’s going to think the NHL out of existence.