(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
The NHL is playing a dangerous game with the only thing it still has going for it: a small group of fiercely loyal fans.
OK, so I went a bit bonkers on Twitter yesterday (it won't make any sense unless you're a fellow devotee to the church of Karl Welzein). I was scrolling through the tweets detailing the league's reaction to the PA's proposal, and I just about hit my breaking point with this lockout. If Pierre McGuire had been doing colour commentary of me sitting at my desk reading those tweets, he would have described me as "incredulous". Then he would have hovered uncomfortably close as he interviewed me during my lunch break. Man, I almost miss Pierre McG...
GAH! See! This lockout is making me crazy. And it's not just that there's no meaningful hockey being played (with all due respect to the Chicago Wolves and my local Victoria Royals), it's the cyclical nature of the negotiations. There's a meeting, or a new proposal, and a strand of hope manifests out of thin air. There's a collective holding of the breath as we wait for the afterword, and the inevitable letdown when the reports start coming in. "Still far apart", "not speaking the same language", "unwilling to negotiate"...all oft-tweeted phrases by insiders and outsiders alike.
And that's an important thing to note: the texture of public perception through this whole process has largely been painted by Twitter. Unlike in 2004, this lockout has a beating heart, to the point where it feels like a patient in a hospital: we check in multiple times a day, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Whether or not social media has been a benefit (more public pressure) or a hindrance (leaked memos, delayed progress) is debatable, but one thing is not: it has made the whole debacle nearly impossible to ignore.
And therein lies a veiled wake-up call for the leaders of this negotiation: we are still listening. Despite all the awful press, all the counter-productive PR stunts, all the staged meetings and all the press conferences bringing only bad news, we are still here. That is how much we care. Sure, we're tweeting about how sick and tired we are of hearing you talk, but we still hang on every word in the hopes that four of them will be "we have a deal".
Where will you be when no one is listening?
As a major sports league in North America, you have the smallest contingent of fans, but what we lack in numbers we make up for in knowledge and insight. We care about the game as an entity, not just as something we watch for entertainment. That's why we're still here. Why else would we put up with you? It's not as if we find Gary Bettman's accent hopelessly endearing, or because Donald Fehr's reading glasses remind us of our sweet old grandpa. It's because, for better or worse, you are the ones in charge of getting the best sport in the world back on the ice.
Realize this: there is no PR war; we see through you. At least, those of us that are still left do. You may see our commitment as currency you can use to buy more time, but that's a very dangerous game to play. No currency is bottomless, and even the most acute attention span will eventually waver.
You may be at peace with throwing away any credibility you've managed to rebuild since your last public embarrassment, but don't do the same to the one thing you still have going for you: a group of dedicated fans that, despite all that has transpired over the past two months, are still listening.