For the better part of two days, survey after survey has come to the same basic conclusion: That, 95 days into its second lockout in eight years, the NHL brand is badly damaged and unlike last time, when the appetite for the NHL product trumped all the frustration built up over a lost season, this time, it will be different.
This time fans – or more precisely, the paying customers – will stay away once the lockout ends. Some say they will divorce the NHL altogether, and others plan to punish the league and its players in the short term, because of their stubborn unwillingness to bridge the seemingly small gaps that divide the two sides.
But will they really?
That is the $3.3-billion (U.S.) question for 30 owners and 750 players to ponder, as they while away the season. But there is a counter-intuitive case to be made that the NHL will return pretty much as is, especially in Canada, where most of the polling about customer anger and apathy has been conducted recently.
Say what you will about the NHL and how it conducts its business, but it has done an exceptional job of developing brand loyalty on a team-by-team basis. So, for example, Oiler fans in Edmonton sell out the building, despite six consecutive years out of the playoffs. Canucks fans riot in the Vancouver streets when their team comes up short in a seven-game Stanley Cup final. Jets fans in Winnipeg raise the roof with their voices, now that the NHL is back after a long time away.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens are, according to Forbes, two of the three NHL franchises that account for the vast majority of profits – and have fan bases that spill far beyond their city limits. Senators fans in Ottawa love to hate Hogtown, and Flames fans in Calgary continue to crowd into the Saddledome, despite perpetually mediocre results.
In short, while the overall NHL brand may well be weakening, one could convincingly argue that the seven individual Canadian brands will remain strong, no matter how much disenchantment there may be with commissioner Gary Bettman or NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr.
As a business entity, the NHL is really just one large holding company, with 30 branch offices. Seven operate in Canada and during the past seven years of labour peace, they have been among the most successful branches in the entire NHL operation.
In Canada, people may say they love hockey, but what they really love are their individual NHL teams. Coming out of the lockout, whenever that may be, every single Canadian team will have something the marketing departments can latch on to, so as to lure back their wavering and disenchanted fan bases.
In Montreal, a new regime, under general manager Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien. In Ottawa, a young exciting team, far better than it should have been last year under head coach Paul MacLean. In Toronto, the start of the James van Riemsdyk era. In Winnipeg, the continuation of the honeymoon that started a year ago. In Edmonton, a chance to see fresh faces Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov join the other high draft choices already in the lineup. In Vancouver, one or two last cracks at the Cup before the championship window closes. In Calgary, a coach with a championship pedigree, Bob Hartley, takes over in what could be the last days of the Jarome Iginla era.
Hope is the commodity that the NHL ultimately sells – the hope that your team, this year, might be better than it was last year and maybe, cross your fingers, that they can catch the sort of lightning in a bottle that carried the Los Angeles Kings to the 2012 Stanley Cup championship.
Hope and renewal are the twin pillars of the professional sports sales pitch – and when hope eventually gives way to reality in any season (where only one of 30 teams actually win the Stanley Cups), then there is the possibility of renewal. The cycle begins anew every 12 months. Wait till next year, right?
Against the backdrop of that business paradigm, why does anyone think that in Canada, anything has fundamentally changed? People are hopping mad, but people were hopping mad back in 2004-05 and came back anyway, even after the NHL became the first major pro league to lose an entire season to a labour dispute.
In the U.S., there are half-a-dozen of successful branches, plus a few that haven't been strong of late – the Minnesota Wild, for example – will get their own shots-in-the-arm from their big off-season signings (Ryan Suter, Zach Parise).
The real challenges will be where the real challenges would exist even if they were playing this year: Dallas, Phoenix, Colorado, Florida, Carolina, Long Island, Anaheim. Where indifference existed before, it is reasonable to think indifference will exist again, lockout or no lockout.
Crystal ball-gazing is always an inexact science, but history tells us one true thing about hockey fans. They are loyal, especially in the category of hard-core supporters that bleed their team colours.
For them, the NHL is almost an addiction. Maybe going cold turkey these past three months will cure them. Or maybe, just like last time, when the product returns to the market, they will find themselves helpless again.
But no matter what they may be saying right now, there is no way of knowing for sure how they will act until a settlement actually occurs.
So gentlemen, what are you waiting for?