“As I said we know that no words of apology or explanation will soften the disappointment. I read the letters, I followed the tweets, I read the blogs: we have a lot of work to do. The National Hockey League has a responsibility to earn back your trust and support, whether you watch one game or every game. And that effort begins today. The players are ready to play their hearts out for you, the teams are preparing to welcome you back with open arms, the wait is just about over. Like all of you we can’t wait to drop the puck.” – Gary Bettman on January 9th, after the Board of Governors ratified the new Collective Bargaining Agreement
When the lockout began, it felt like a public relations campaign was being waged by the NHL and NHLPA to sway fans. Players took to Twitter to express their disappointment and all they gave back the last go-around. The NHL gagged owners from speaking, but in October, it was revealed that the league hired Luntz Global to conduct focus groups to create their own spin on the situation.
When all was said and done, 113 days of posturing, stubbornness and stupidity left fans disillusioned with both sides. Now it’s time for the next PR offensive – picking up the pieces and work on repairing the damage this labor dispute has caused. Bettman alluded that they were working on initiatives to make amends and teams are beginning to make offers. On January 9th, the Tampa Bay Lightning offered a limited number of $200.00 season ticket packages to lure people back. Their in-state rivals the Florida Panthers have launched a “7th man” campaign to provide fans with unique experiences both inside and outside of the arena. The Dallas Stars are letting children under 12 in free with a paid adult for January and February games. The Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins will be offering things like such as deep merchandise discounts and free concessions to kick off their home schedules.
Based on attendance at open practices across North America, fans seem to be in a forgiving mood. What more, if anything, could teams do to win back the proverbial hearts and minds of their fans? How much of an impact will the third lockout since 1994 have on attendance? Members of Hockey Independent’s writing staff answer those questions for the teams they cover.
WB Philp – Tampa Bay Lightning
While a heartfelt apology from ownership and the players will start the healing process, NHL teams will need to do more to make up for taking the sport of hockey away from their customers.
Those customers have taken to social media, letting teams know how they can make it up to them. By Sunday evening, Facebook and Twitter became the Fans Fantasy League of Freebies, with many suggesting the NHL give out free tickets to openers, free food and a free season of the Center Ice cable package.
Realistically, slashed ticket prices, autograph signings, merchandise giveaways and fan friendly incentives will only slightly help bring Lightning fans back to the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Owner Jeffrey Vinik can give away fried pickles and chicken fingers until he’s Lightning blue in the face. There is only one thing that will bring Tampa Bay Lightning fans back. Give them a quality product on the ice, night in and night out. If the Bolts get off to a fast start and look to be Cup contenders in this abbreviated season, the stands will be full.
Seth Levin – New Jersey Devils
It’s tough to say exactly what the NHL and NHLPA should do to “make up” with the fans for the 113-day lockout they put them through, but there’s little doubt there will certainly be an impact felt. Speaking from a pure Devils standpoint, momentum built up from last year’s spectacular playoff run came to a sudden screeching halt. It’s not every year you beat your two biggest rivals on the ice to earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and a lot of growth in the fan base that often comes with success on the ice. The challenge now is to build back those positive feelings to bring the casual fans back. Let’s face it, the diehards will mostly return without too many issues. Sure, we diehards would like to be acknowledged and made clear we and our wallets aren’t being taken for granted, but there’s a reason we became diehards in the first place and those feelings don’t go away just because of a ridiculous labor strife.
Back in 2005, the NHL gave out replica Stanley Cups on opening night, along with hats and other items centering around a “Welcome Back” or “Thank you fans” theme. I would hope the NHL and NHLPA have some more interactive types of ways to say thank you this time around. Granted, it will be tougher to do in a compressed schedule, but it wasn’t the fans who created this situation, it was he players and owners. Therefore, I would expect and hope to see more meet and greet type of events for the players and fans to sort of re-connect a bit and for owners and management to offer some price reductions to help rebuild some goodwill lost during the lockouts. Apologies are nice, but actions speak louder and there are fans out there that will want to see action.
Ultimately, I don’t find myself to be too hard line and don’t expect anything too crazy. It’s unfortunately a business and sometimes business can get in the way of entertainment. While I respect he position of those who will take a hard line stance, I don’t see me interrupting my enjoyment to take a stand, otherwise I’d be penalizing myself. It doesn’t necessarily make me right, it is just reality. I must be Gary Bettman’s dream fan because I’m just glad hockey is back again.
Cris Cohen – New York Rangers
Admittedly, my mind wandered over to what my hockey team could do for me for putting up with the lockout. Sure I’d love to see my ticket prices frozen for next year and playoff tickets for 16 home games not edge closer to what a full season costs. A customized jersey of my choosing (signed by said player would be even better) would be delightful since my collection took a beating thanks to a retirement, a trade and a free agent departure.
Then I snapped out of it because this is the New York Rangers we’re talking about. Subject us to crappy hockey, we come. Hike ticket prices and someone will scoop the seats. Hockey might be the forgotten sport in New York, but try telling that to the mix of die-hards and corporate suits that fill the building almost every night. Serious Stanley Cup aspirations for this season all but assure that Rangers’ attendance will not suffer. If this might be the year, how many die-hards will cut off their nose to spite their face? If you would then you are far more principled than I.
In reality, I don’t expect more than an opening-night giveaway of a t-shirt or a hat or some such item. There are two things though I’d like to see. The first is give fans greater accessibility to the organization. In previous seasons, the Rangers have had question-and-answer forums for season subscribers featuring players and coaches. Even in a compressed schedule, it would be nice to see them have one. The Rangers do not hold open practices (their Westchester training facility rink is not built to handle throngs of onlookers even if they did). A break in protocol of an open practice or two at Madison Square Garden would be a way to reconnect. So would having a skate on Garden ice that a few of the players attend. An opportunity to even have a brief moment around the guys we root for night in and night out far surpasses a painted phrase on the ice, a half-price t-shirt or any tchotchkes they might hand out.
I knew full well I would be back no matter what. I’m one of those people Gary Bettman was relying on to let them get away with another lockout. The NHL is like that bad boyfriend that takes advantage of you and on occasion disappears from your life for periods of time. He breaks your heart and pisses you off, yet you refuse to break up with him because you love him so much and when it’s good, it’s good. That is my personal choice because it’s what I live for, even when they give me agita. I’ll be there on opening night. I’m looking forward to seeing all the familiar faces that surrounded me during last season’s run. I’m looking forward to taking that ride with them again.
Oh, I did say there were two things I’d like to see the Rangers do as an organization, didn’t I? As for the second thing, well, if my jewelry collection is any indication, I have quite an affinity for big, shiny pieces of silver.
About the Author: Likes: Hockey, the New York Rangers, King Henrik, singing the Rangers goal song, "The Save", the sound skates make against ice, heckling Marty Brodeur. Dislikes: 3-point games, front-office mismanagement, Denis Potvin, overpriced arena beer. Interested? Follow me on Twitter: @CC_927