Sixteen months is a long time. In that time frame, a person could have a child (gender permitting), learn a musical instrument, develop rock hard abs and maybe even have enough time to watch every single re-run of the popular MTV reality show, “The Real World.”
Sixteen months can also be enough time to forget about someone or something once loved, but in the case of the National Hockey League, many fans just aren’t ready to let go. [1hockey1]
On Feb. 16, NHL owners officially cancelled the 2004-2005 season after a drawn-out and highly publicized labor dispute with the players that made a Mike Tyson comeback fight look like a civilized social event.
But cooler heads prevailed in late summer as the frugal nature of the owners proved to be stronger than the unrelenting greed of the players, and the NHL finally resumed play on Oct. 5.
With its return, the NHL has been careful thus far in attempting to regain some of the fans quite literally left out in the cold last winter. They have placed cute little logos on the ice at every arena reading, “Thank you, fans.” Whether they are thanking fans for putting up with their third grade-like squabble, or simply for showing up at a game remains a valid question.
Perhaps making it tougher for the fans to make a return to the game is the fact that the league’s major television contract with ESPN has not been renewed. This leaves NHL watchers with only a few choices: watching a game on a regional Fox Sports broadcast or searching their cable boxes feverishly for the new home of the NHL, the Outdoor Life Network.
Yes, I said the Outdoor Life Network, a channel famous for its “Survivor” replays and Tour de France coverage. Most college students couldn’t find this one on their Comcast cable box even if you paid them a full year’s tuition.
Finance sophomore Ryan Merz is definitely one of those fans who has missed the NHL and will be sure to have access to OLN this season. Merz, who currently plays on the MSU men’s club hockey team, is originally from Chicago and has a hockey background that would make even the most pedestrian fan envious. While attending Shattuck St. [3hockey]Mary’s prep school in Minnesota, Merz played alongside several icers who currently grace NHL rosters, most notably Pittsburgh Penguins rookie phenomenon and media proclaimed “Next One,” Sidney Crosby. “It was really a downer not to see games on during the week [last fall],” said Merz. “It just left me with a lot more free time and a lot more Sportscenter watching.”
Renee Buck, an MSU fisheries and wildlife junior, also felt the deep void in her schedule without hockey on the tube. Buck, who plays hockey on the MSU women’s club team, said she focused her spare time on playing more herself so she wouldn’t miss it so much. “I played a lot more and followed college hockey more than I ever have,” said Buck. “I also watched the World Cup avidly to keep some hockey around.”
A self-proclaimed “newer” fan of the game, Buck has strong memories of watching Stanley Cup playoff hockey and feeling the pain after her Red Wings were bounced far too early in their last playoff run of 2003. Apparently even bad, heart-breaking hockey is better than no hockey at all.
During the labor dispute last year, some sports experts questioned not only when the NHL would return but if it would ever return. Maybe more importantly, they questioned whether anyone in this country would actually care. Some fans in areas where hockey was a struggling sport before the dispute were left with enough time to forget the difference between a puck and a goalpost. “I think the fans that were not really regulars might not have cared [if the NHL had never came back],” said Merz. “Sooner or later it would have just been forgotten, and that is sad to say.”
There is no question a longer lockout would have been devastating to the sport, even more so than what Major League Baseball went through following their players strike of 1994. Once the players returned the next year, the fan base was clearly decimated and some say it has yet to fully recover, even after countless attempts by the MLB to draw them back. “I think it would have been a major disappointment all over,” said Buck. “It might have helped college hockey a little more in the end but it would still be a major disappointment.”
However, in Michigan and specifically on the MSU campus, where the Detroit Red Wings are as beloved as a dollar beer pitcher, it just didn’t seem normal to turn on the television and not see grown men fly around on skates chasing a little black frozen thing and violently crashing into each other. “Without hockey on television, for me it was just like, what do you do?” said Merz.
Jim Martin, general manager of the MSU men’s hockey club, said it didn’t seem right not to see the teams playing even though it helped out his club’s coverage and attention. “We actually received a lot of national coverage in our national tournament that probably wouldn’t have been there before last year,” said Martin. “It did seem very different though in the spring when the playoffs were missed.”
Martin said the problem and conflict with the lockout just didn’t make sense. Over the past few years, teams started moving from small markets where hockey was a small form of organized religion to larger markets where the only ice is in a frozen margarita. The Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix, the Quebec Nordiques relocated to Colorado, the Hartford Whalers shipped south to North Carolina and maybe the biggest travesty of all was the beloved Minnesota North Stars migration to Dallas. These moves have all unquestionably hurt the sport’s overall popularity. In addition, Martin also questioned why the sport would tinker with the physicality of hockey that people love so much – the fights.
Martin believes that in markets where hockey has always been big, fans will continue to flock to the arenas, but it remains to be seen about those warm weather rinks. “Hockey has always been a blue collar type of sport, which gives it roots around this area; in addition the cold climate itself attracts people,” said Martin. “But they might have really lost those bubble fans who they were really trying to build up.”
Another question to be raised isn’t just how the league itself is doing with the return of play, but rather how local businesses who specialize in selling NHL apparel are fairing. With the lost season, hockey shops across the country, especially in Michigan, suffered in NHL merchandise sales that are normally considerably high. Add that to the fact that the retail price of an officially licensed NHL jersey will run you about as much as it costs to fill up an SUV ($60-70), and you have a bit of a problem.
“Really the one thing we’ve missed out on are the jersey sales,” said Bryan Hobson, manager of Perani’s Hockey World of East Lansing. “We just aren’t selling as many as we did when they were playing before.” Hobson said the overall sale of hockey equipment hasn’t been affected, but did say certain aspects of player-endorsed equipment has seen a slight dip. “Say [Detroit Red Wing’s forward] Brendan Shanahan uses a new stick, a lot of times kids would come in here and say, ‘Oh, I want to use that because Shanahan does,’” said Hobson. “You just don’t see that as much anymore.”
Adding up all the problems facing the NHL can be as daunting and painful as filling out a federal tax form. But in Michigan, hockey has become a way of life. Everyone has their favorite Red Wing, people will seriously consider selling you their first born child if you have a playoff ticket close enough to ice level, Steve Yzerman could literally run for mayor of Detroit and probably win by a landslide and I think we all remember those corny flags people left on their cars forever after the Wings won their recent Stanley Cups. So it might be safe to say hockey is back and fans around here are starting to forgive and forget. [2hockey2]
“I was at the Vancouver game earlier this year,” said Hobson. “And down there in the building it felt like the strike never happened. I think slowly but surely fans are starting to come around and get back into it.”
Maybe things are a bit different around here where hockey and the Red Wings still hold the eye of sports fans. It seems apparent the diehard hockey followers that fill the Great Lakes State have not only missed, but craved their “coolest sport on ice.”
In celebration of the comeback, feel free to break out those old skates, start thinking of ways to sneak octopi into the Joe Louis Arena and you might even bring back those corny car flags.
Hopefully there won’t be any more 16-month-long trial separations.

2 thoughts on “Long Time Coming”

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