Projected attendance for 2013-14 NHL season.

We take a break from our usual posting of gloom this morning, to bring you a little doom.

In the past, the NHL has had work stoppages. There was a players’ strike, then a lockout, then a lockout, and now, a lockout. In the past, fans have come back. The 94-95 Stanley Cup was won by the New Jersey Devils after a short season, and fans were there (at least they had a season, after all). The 2004-05 season got vaporized entirely, yet fans returned. The thing being taken for granted by the league here is that the main reason they returned after the last lockout was that the product had improved. The game was faster without obstruction, the Winter Classic was introduced, and everything was peachy.

I’ve long held the belief that this lockout won’t see fans come rushing back in the same way this time. As I implied, there was something wrong with hockey, not just in the accounting departments, but on the ice last time. This time the league has shot the game out of the sky while it was flying at it’s peak. It’s like Duck Hunt, only without the laughing dog cause nothing’s funny, and the league killed it’s target. 

Today Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail highlighted a study by the market research company “Level5″ which believes the NHL is, for lack of a better term, fucked. (My phrasing, of course.) Some quick background:

Level5 is a 10-year-old company based in Toronto that has done “brand” analysis for such major enterprises as the NFL, NBA, 3M Co., Rogers Communications Inc., Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd., Second Cup Ltd., BCE Inc., Petro-Canada and many others.

Its expertise lies in in-depth interviews that determine the “emotional attachment” people have to various products.

In the case of the NHL and its players, the abiding feelings of the moment are betrayal at one end of the scale and utter lack of interest at the other. If you’re looking for warm and fuzzy, get out a microscope – or, better yet, switch to curling.

Welp, bleak start. I’m sure it gets better. It’s easy to hate the NHL while the games aren’t under way, but an entirely different thing to hate (and ignore) it once the action heats up.

The research, by the way, is not done for the benefit of the league, but “as a tool that might be sold to the multiple corporate sponsors of professional hockey, in order to show what they need to tap into with hockey fans if they hope to regain their former good standing.” If hockey fans aren’t going to loathe the NHL forever, I’m guessing “tapping into” a keg per ex-season ticket holder per game would be a good place to start.

Let’s check in with Level5 CEO David Kincade, to see what he has to say about the effect of the lockout on the NHL:

“We found damage at levels we have not seen,” Kincaid says. “It’s quite alarming, really.

“If anyone thinks that the lockout can end and everyone will come back to Happy Valley, it ain’t going to happen.”

Bleak. Dark. Doom.

Well, the NHL may be in some real trouble, but how bad could it be? Hockey fans are diehard.

The company creates colour maps to highlight how fun people find brands (red!), how interested they are in them (yellow!), how inspirational they find them (orange!), and many, many other things (read Roy’s column if that interests you). Disney, he points out, has an excellent colour map.

Let’s check in on the NHLs:

A disastrous map would be the one Level5 created following the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It was the worst the company had seen – until it got around to the NHL this month.

GAHHH. What? The NHL lockout is worse than the BP oil spill? Let’s all get some toothbrushes and scrub the filth off innocent hockey fans.

The sooner the NHL gets back on the ice the better, but let’s not kid ourselves: real damage has been done. Not BP oil spill damage – c’mon, Level5, you might need to adjust a few parameters there – but significant damage that I think will greatly affect attendace upon the game’s return.