Last year I went to my first National Hockey League game. It was at Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers played the New York Islanders. I always wanted to see hockey live but never got around to it. I thought it would be fun; it always seemed interesting on television. I seriously underestimated it. The game was awesome. The speed, the collisions, the random chants, the way the crowd comes alive during a good scoring chance; hockey has a unique pace that draws you in. Unfortunately, it looks like I will not be experiencing the thrills of NHL games anytime soon.
The NHL locked out its players at midnight on Sunday, September 16, 2012. The NHL could not have made a bigger mistake.
By imposing a player lockout, the NHL is killing all the momentum it created during the thrilling 2011-12 season. If the work stoppage goes on for an extended amount of time, the magical run by goaltender Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings to win the Stanley Cup will be a distant memory. The NHL has a chance to build on a great season and cultivate what it so desperately needs: new fans. Hockey needs to capture the attention of people like me: mid 30s with a family, a decent job, internet access, and cable television. Prior to last year, I never went to a hockey game. I never checked my phone for NHL scores. I never watched an entire Stanley Cup playoff game. I never read articles about NHL free agents. After a few months I had an irrational hatred for the New Jersey Devils. This lockout may insure that I never do those things again.
What the NHL must realize that for many American sports fans, hockey is a distant fourth choice. The National Football League is king, in 2011 nine of the top ten television shows were football related programs. In 2011, Major League Baseball had its highest attendance since 2008. The 2012 NBA Finals had its highest television ratings since 2004. In a era where consumers have endless options for entertainment and when football (both college and pro) and the NBA are your direct competition for disposable income, shutting down the league indefinably is not a good strategy.
I am sure commissioner Gary Bettman is an intelligent businessman. In the past two NHL lockouts, the league has gained major concessions from the players and Bettman probably believes he can score another victory for the owners. He may look at the recent NBA and NFL lockouts, how well those leagues recovered from those work stoppages, and thinks the backlash from a lockout will be minimal. However, the NHL isn’t the NFL, the dominant brand in the sports industry. The NHL isn’t the NBA, which features a host of internationally recognizable stars. The NHL isn’t Major League Baseball, a league that is entrenched in American history.
No hockey, while an exciting sport, is an afterthought to the American sports fan. This lockout threatens to keep it that way.