Most hockey fans will tell you that the 2004–05 season was a pretty dark time for the sport. For the first time in the history of North American professional sports, a labour dispute wiped out an entire season. When it finally ended, and the NHL returned in October 2005, fans flocked back to the game in droves. And in retrospect, that may have been just as bad as the lockout.
Today, the NHL is just a week and a half away from being locked out once again. Things aren’t entirely hopeless, of course, and there’s still a chance things will be resolved before the September 15th deadline, but the reports that have leaked on the ongoing negations have not been terribly promising. Part of the problem seems to be the fact that the player’s union appears to be stalling somewhat, hoping that the league will blink once the deadline looms closer. However, I don’t see that happening, and I suspect that the league isn’t worried about starting another lockout.
This all brings us back to October 2005. When hockey fans decided to embrace the game again without hesitation, they unwittingly sent a message: the lockout didn’t matter, and the NHL didn’t have to seriously worry about alienating most of its fanbase. This is part of the nature of hockey fans, I think. Hockey is both a major cultural touchstone (in Canada) and a niche sport (in the United States), which tends to create fans who have an undying loyalty to the game. Compare this to Major League Baseball, which took a few years to fully recover from the 1994 player’s strike. Baseball certainly has its hardcore fans, but the majority of people who fill stadiums are more casual, and thus are more fickle about how they spend their entertainment money.
What does all this mean, then? Much as people on the Internet like to posture about organizing an NHL boycott in the event of a lockout, the league knows that such a movement is ultimately a toothless one. Somewhat paradoxically, hockey fans love their sport too much to truly abandon it for any length of time, even if doing so might be good for the long term health of the sport.
All of this paints a rather bleak picture, I know. As someone who grew up watching the NHL, I certainly get how tough it is to watch the league lurch inexorably towards another lockout. If it does happen, I suspect that the eventual outcome will be much the same as last time, and that hockey fans will unhesitatingly return to the game. Frankly, we just can’t help ourselves. It’s in our nature.