Backchecking: A sort of open letter

To Gary Bettman, the NHL Board of Governors, NHLPA Management and NHL Players

It is with great frustration and anger that I write this letter. I speak for myself, but I am guessing that many fans are feeling the very same things that I will innumerate here in this letter — the purpose of which is to gradually, gently but effectively hope to get you to see that the great big hockey stick you all have up your collective keesters are costing you all some pretty significant discomfort — and just when you sit down….

This is the third lockout during Mr. Bettman’s tenure as Commissioner of the NHL. Some may see that as a postive when considering that the league has set record revenue during his leadership. They see the union back broken as part of his legacy. But I do not share that point of view. I rather look at what might have been.

I look at the fall of the NHL as a sports entertainment venture in the United States — no longer considered as part of the 4 major sports. Those younger fans may be surprised to even learn that Hockey in the States was, at one time, considered a major sport. Today, it has fallen off considerably. NASCAR has replaced it in many corners of the States, and throughout the nation, I would suggest College Basketball and College Football have supplanted the NHL as major sports and entertainment avenues open to fans — with all three of those mentioned garnering a substantial share of the market — certainly one bigger then the NHL (whether the NHL is actively playing its season or in a lockout). To Canadian fans, this may not matter, but I view this as a major problem. In Canada, hockey is the national pastime, and will always be the number 1 sport. But the impact to the league is as a whole by having its popularity slide so far off the grid in America has far reaching financial ramifications that impact all 30 NHL cities (For those keeping count, 23 of 30 NHL cities are in the US). The lockouts have played a massive role in the decline of hockey as a whole — of course that is opinion, but I would be a little surprised if that was not the majority opinion of your customers — the fans (I know… you don’t remember us.)

The 2004-05 season was lost due to the last lockout just 7 years ago. And back in 1994-95, half the season was canceled. This year, we have lost another half season so far. My math says that makes 2 full seasons of lost NHL hockey. That means that 30 NHL owners have lost 2 full years of revenue. Players have missed 2 full years of pay checks. Cities have lost 2 full years of tax revenues. The surrounding businesses lost out on 2 years of food, beverage and merchandise sales. Has that been a part of the negotiations as you debate the virtues of splitting $3.7 billion?

And for what?

If the owners take the revenue lost over 2 years of no hockey, and subtract it from what was possibly gained through the negotiations during the years there was hockey, what would that balance sheet look like? Did you make more then you would have from the gains made at the hands of forcing the players to capitulate? I hope it was worth it (it may have been, I don’t have that answer.) I am guessing that for the players, the $3.7 billion that is shared revenue does not impact the contracts you have. You are still being paid (at least when there is NHL Hockey) based on the contracts you signed. Can someone ask Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Craig Leipold if that is true?

For the players — you guys capitulated after the 2004-05 season was lost. You gave up a great deal in accepting the salary cap. That lockout was all about cap vs. no cap, and you should have figured out that a cap was not only needed because of the fast rising salaries, but also inevitable. Those increases may be on the owners shelling out all that money, but you had to know it was coming. The NFL and NBA had hard caps, and baseball had instituted a soft cap. Rather then just work within that framework from the beginning, you kept pushing the issue until an entire season was lost. How many of the players who were in twilight of their careers would like to have that season back? One more season of playing NHL hockey. One more chance to lace ‘em up, get a few more points? Was it worth it?

In the end, the owners got everything they wanted and then some. But it was not good enough. Players salaries continue to rise and they do so because of owners (no one has held a gun to any of you owners heads to find Cap loopholes, or pay some of these guys 10, 12 and 15 years front loaded contracts). But at the same time, the system that existed worked in many ways. It should have been easy to re-work a few of the details and avoid this lockout. But two greedy, and with all due respect — ignorant groups — can’t see the forest for the trees.

2004-05 and now 2012-13 are all about both sides doing an abhorrent job of understanding each other. And both sides are more adept at childish name-calling, and gamesmanship rather then solving the actual issues that exist.

This has become a PR campaign wrapped around a Luntz philosophy — which is based in hate-filled words meant to divide rather than bring together. A signal should have been sent to all NHL fans the moment Frank Luntz became involved on the NHL side of the debate that the season would be in jeopardy (And lets be real — all of you involved, it is).

And neither of you — not Gary Bettman or Donald Fehr, certainly not the 30 NHL owners or NHL Players have opened your collective eyes wide enough to see the issues beyond yourselves. That is the pure and concise definition of selfishness.

Both of you are to be blamed for the incredible stupidity that has led us to this point. You all may believe the “game will be fine.” You all may think that we, the customers will return. And after some time, we very well may. But for all of you owners and NHL and NHLPA representatives and management guys and gals — for all the super duper business minds that are supposed to exist within the populous that is the NHL and NHLPA braintrust….

Explain to me how this kind of business model fosters growth? And by growth, I don’t mean a few dollars up each year. I mean exponential growth.

Show me how your numbers will work. How do you generate growth when all you are doing is gaining then losing, then gaining the same die-hard fan base?

Is it possible the reason revenues are going up is because the increased ticket prices, merchandise prices, concessions…. gets passed on to your customers?

Your task — the NHL governors including the Commissioner, the NHLPA’s leadership, and the players themselves — is not just to put the product on the ice and make money at it. It is to grow the product. Expand the base for the product, increase the market share and create a sustainable model for the near and long term viability of the NHL franchise. It is not to simply work within what you already have. This is the central task for any business — to increase the appeal. And this is something that you Gary Bettman, in your tenure as commissioner have failed at terribly. And just because I am calling Mr. Bettman out here should not absolve the players, past or present. You all have played a major roll in the decline of this business and the appeal of the game as a whole. Some of this has to do with the crappy marketing firms you hire, but the lockouts have all but killed the NHL!!

Want to know why I am right?  Because when you walk through the NHL cities — at least in the USA, to which there are 23 or the 30 franchises — no one seems to give a rats ass that you no longer exist. Do you think that would be case if it was the NFL or MLB?

I play dek hockey once a week — just for a little exercise. And if I don’t bring it up, the NHL is not mentioned. Not the lockout. Not the teams. Not the players. And the people I play with, the people I talk to are “fans” of the teams in the NHL — they are customers to your product (or were).

No — you all have FAILED miserably in the management and stewardship of the NHL brand.

What is sad is that starting in 1980, the game of Hockey should have become an indispensable part of the sports entertainment complex in the US. With the “Miracle on Ice” victory of USA gold, the game’s appeal should have exploded, and that should have been and could have been exploited into massive, SUSTAINABLE growth. I suppose in some ways it started to work, but it was squandered. It certainly did not help when in 1994-95 the season was cut short, and since then there have been fits and starts with now 2 lockouts.

My point is that this should be a bigger business then $3.7 billion.

For those keeping count, Right now, it is worth $0.00.

I have no plea for either of you.

Not Mr. Bettman, or Mr. Fehr. Not the players. Not the owners.

None of you “get it.”

None of you give a shit about your customers. Never have. Never will. Shame on us for caring about you and your game.

My plea is really to NHL fans… More of a dream come true rather then a plea.

I think that the day the NHL returns (and I am sure it will at some point) — on that opening day — the greatest hockey dream short of the New York Islanders winning another Stanley Cup would be to see all 30 NHL arena’s experience an empty house on their opening nights — with not a single fan in attendance. To see the looks on the faces of coaches, managers and players — and of course the owners. The players name is called over the sound system — they hear is the music playing and see some firework type of thing as they skate onto the ice with the spotlight on them — each teammate announced. Then, when the full team is on the ice, and the announcer says, “Here they are, your 2013-14……. ” and the lights all come on…. and then… nothing! Nothing but the sound of their breathing… All looking into the  empty stands, seeing row after row of empty seats. No other sound. No other noise of any kind.

That would be my dream come true.

It matches the empty suits in the owners boxes, and in the NHL offices in New York and Toronto — and all of the empty uniforms on the ice in 30 NHL cities. And it is symbiotic with all the empty heads throughout the NHL and NHLPA.

Do I sound bitter? Do I sound annoyed? If I do, take a look in the mirror for the reason why.

I used to just hope for a good hockey game on any given NHL night. But you all have made me hope for that dream to come true. That has become the NHL of your leadership — from the Commissioner, to 30 NHL owners, and the 700 + NHL players and their PA management.

That is your legacy.

Im sure most Islander fans thought I’d be sharing my thoughts about the Islanders finally settling their arena difficulties and long term future. Problems is — right now the Islanders don’t exist. Neither do the Red Wings, Canucks, Canadiens, Leafs, Yotes or Rangers… or any of the other 30 teams. So how can I write about something that doesn’t exist? I guess all I can say about the what used to be the Islanders new home.. “….ehhh… ok… big woop.”

My sincerest thanks to you all for taking all of the joy out of hockey!

Signed — a former customer.

At the conclusion of the last lockout, you had a new NHL logo made to show the advancement of the game. I like that idea. In an effort to show the advancement of the game today, 7 years after the last lockout, I have created the following new NHL logo for you. In this new logo, I believe the NHLPA should be in partnership with you — just to be sure everyone is getting their just credit. I believe it communicates precisely what both the NHL and the NHLPA are all about. I am sure future generations will see it for what it is!

The New NHL Logo — for 2013-14, if there is an NHL…

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About the Author: A graphic designer who loves the game....and knows that age has slowed him down — but the passion is there. Islanders fan since the 70s, Dad, Husband and Coach of the Flying Tiger's Email: Twitter:

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  1. J-ROC says:

    Greed begets greed. Until the selfishness of the individuals are put aside nothing will ever get accomplished. They fail to relaize that the world is a lot bigger place than their bank account. It effects so many more people like the concessions people that work that extra job to be able to feed their family. or those poor sweat shops in Bangladesh.

  2. J-ROC says:

    Great LOGO!