Hockey fans are both the smallest and most loyal fan base in the four major pro sports.
Theyve returned to the NHL in record numbers since the league reached its nadir in calling off the 2004-05 NHL regular season due to labor issues, the first pro sports league to call off an entire year.
But they returned to a faster, sleeker, more exciting NHL and helped build the league up to a 3.3 billion business last year. The fans supported outside-the-box initiatives like the Winter Classic and the HBOs 24:7 series and the league managed to wrangle itself a 2 billion deal television deal with the NBC Sports Network despite meager national ratings compared to the other three leagues.
But with the NHLs expected Friday afternoon announcement that the Winter Classic game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs has been cancelled, the NHL and NHLPA have finally drawn blood in negotiations. It seemed that the collective hockey world barely blinked at the first two months of the NHL regular season being cancelled. After all its the least profitable quarter of the regular season and most of the problem NHL franchises (Florida, Phoenix and New York Islanders etc.) are saving more money whacking games rather than playing to empty houses.
Its a bloodless calculation of business and leverage for the NHL owners and a jihad-like fight for rights for the NHLPA, and theres been no middle ground achieved at this point. The big losers are the arena-area business ownersemployees and the fans deprived of league leadership working on faith, long-term vision and a genuine love for the game. But the oft-abused fans are perhaps reacting a little differently than they did eight years ago when the NHL imploded an entire year, and that should be a major, major worry for the NHLs bean counters.
The ticket-purchasing public isnt angry for the most part. Theyre not ranting and raving like puck-head lunatics. Instead theyre equal turns apathetic and uncaring, and theyve simply turned the page on the NHL to other things. Maybe its the NBA or the NFL, or maybe its an up-and-coming sport like MLS soccer.
Maybe its something else entirely in the Internet age where there are so many more alternatives for people with disposable income. But whatever the case it looks like the hockey fans are washing their hands of the NHL, and those are the casual connoisseurs that have built the league into a burgeoning revenue monster. That should be a prime concern for the NHL because those are the kinds of fans that wont return to the game when it finally does return next year, two years from now or five years down the road.
Heres a sampling of the fan reaction sent to my twitter account after multiple reports came down that the Winter Classic was about to get squashed:
@Beantownswifty: Not shocked that the Winter Classic is cancelled... @NHL is showing its true colors and its a disrespect to the fans.
@jbehindtheglass: For me, it's sobering; a mirror of the society it provided a distraction from. The "greatest fans" are sheep with wallets.
@eheels10: I guess apathy, because I just don't give a darn about the NHL anymore.
@papakav1: Disgust, will now spend the dollars on college, jr, and prep hockey. No time left for NHL.
@KnobbyBurton: It's disappointing but on the bright side it will give me more free time to start watching TheWire and BreakingBad
@SOURCE_FRIAS: I think after todays announcement a lot of die hard fans will be at the "Who cares anymore" mood as I am.
@gorskic: Repeating myself: This seasons Winter Classic was as good as cancelled the day it was announced. Resigned. Frustrated.
@The_Real_StephK: At this point, apathy. This league will never grow to its potential if this is how little they care about their fans.
@crowleyrules: the seasons probably lost. I had a root-canal'd molar extracted earlier, but the nhl has officially ruined my day.
Listen up, NHL. Those are your ardent fans and theyve been driven to the point where they dont care anymore. Coming off the stoking of those lockout flames eight years ago, something you dont want to do is see how far you can push before it ends with a permanently fractured league.