The work stoppage that should have never happened is over.
The NHL and its player's association have agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, ending a lockout that lasted nearly four months. It should serve as a case study on how to flub a sports labour negotiation.
A settlement should have been reached last summer. Instead, the first three months of the regular season were scuttled. For the third time in two decades, NHL fans were subjected to rumours of negotiations instead of trades, footage of players in suits instead of jerseys, and speculation about whether there would be an NHL season.
Fans who bemoaned the loss of the NHL in October were reminded of the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Most didn't miss the NHL. And while many are happy that the NHL is back, there are a lot of fans carrying a lot of animosity due to the lockout and its duration.
Making amends with fans needs to be the league's top priority.
I didn't miss the NHL; I have lots of local hockey to enjoy. Now that the NHL is back, I'll watch as many big league games as possible. But other fans aren't as forgiving.
Many who are claiming they'll boycott the NHL will return quickly, after their team plays for the first time, or the first time they see nightly highlights, or the first time they watch “Hockey Night in Canada” on an otherwise quiet Saturday night. Or they'll return once their team has a winning streak, or reaches the playoffs. (Angry Toronto Maple Leaf fans likely won't have to worry about winning streaks or playoff runs).
But there is a faction of fans who won't return early in the season, or at any point in the season. They're furious, and they don't want anything to do with the NHL again. These are the fans that the NHL has to reach out to. Many of them can't afford to attend games, or they might only attend a game once or twice a year. But they watch games on television, and they purchase merchandise.
The lockout in 1994-95 did a lot of damage to the game. It sapped a lot of the momentum that the NHL had in the U.S., it infuriated fans in both Canada and the U.S., and a lot of those angry fans stayed away for a long time.
The NHL has been growing in popularity in the last seven years. Television ratings are up. The game has never been more popular in Canada, and the league is thriving in most of its key U.S. markets. The league has to figure out how to regain the momentum from the last few years, so that it can avoid the fallout from the 1994-95 lockout.