Lockout Watch, Day 90: Instead of Hockey

Bruce Bennett

Three months into the lockout. Six months since hockey ended. And where are we? Still waiting.

Welcome to Day 90 of the lockout.

Ninety days. That’s three whole months. 2,160 hours. 129,600 minutes. 7,776,000 seconds. And that’s not even counting the time since NHL hockey has actually been played, let alone since the Caps last stepped off the ice.

Ninety days.

I’ve tried to avoid writing specifically about the lockout and its assorted daily frustrations – in part because thinking about it too much is exhausting; in part because it is equally exhausting to read. It won't change things. It won't sway the owners or bring down the players union. And god knows what the world doesn't need right now is yet another post/article/tweet/update/editorial/rant about the lockout (one need look no further to the 384 links we dedicate to the subject daily in our Clips for proof of that – hey, check ‘em out!).

…but 90 days is a really long time. Hysterically long if you find that kind of thing funny, and too long considering what has been lost and what is at stake. Too long for two sides to spend sniffing around each other, snapping into defensive teeth-baring postures at every turn like a Pomeranian with a severe inferiority complex. Too long for the two sides to avoid actual conversation, putting it off until it was almost too late to begin "serious" discussions (and perhaps waiting too long to do even that). The PR acrobatics, the back-and-forth, the take-and-no-give, the games cancelled, the events ruined, the viciousness and hatred and petty silliness that colors negotiations like this - it’s all too much, frankly, for something that’s supposed to be fun.

As fans we should be enjoying the latest win by our favorite team or tearing our hair out over their latest losing skid or hoping that the team right behind them doesn't suddenly get hot. We should be fervently voting for All-Star candidates and eating up highlights of Alex Ovechkin and Taylor Hall and yes, even Sidney Crosby. Instead we spend our time stressing over endless, senseless updates that do little more than intensify the whiplash when things change from bad to good, good to bad (and yet ultimately stay very much the same). We should be readying for the holidays and the second half of the season, not awaiting word on which owner walked up the left side of the escalator at whatever location is hosting the talks today or discussing whether we’ll even be back if and when this thing finally ends. It should be a hobby, not a headache.

The great sportswriters of our time should be filling columns with the latest offensive outburst or brilliant shutout by the League’s best, speculating about who could be on the trading block and what dark horse team is suddenly in the playoff mix, writing about spectacular games between two evenly-matched teams who left it all on the ice. There should be debate about the necessity for the All-Star Game and excitement over the upcoming Winter Classic, "Best/Worst of 2012" lists that don't stop at June and a rundown on which NHL teams will be able to part with their World Junior-eligible youngsters. Instead the talents of these scribes are being wasted writing paragraph after paragraph explaining decertification and the latest CBA offer from the NHL/PA that will ultimately be rejected by the other side because of petty deal-breakers and hills on which to die. They've been reduced to glorified play-by-play tickers, spitting out rumors and "sources say they’re close/far apart" from the lobby of some New York hotel.

The players should be on the ice. Period.

The owners should be paying them to be there. Period.

Instead the players and owners are locked in the throes of a pissing contest unlike any we've seen in… well, seven years. Instead teams are laying off workers and cutting salaries, businesses are suffering and arenas stay dark. Instead the casual fan who was drawn to the excitement of hockey because of Ovechkin or Crosby or Jonathan Toews or even Tyler Seguin, the fan who was hooked upon seeing the Blackhawks or Kings end a decades-long Cup drought is searching elsewhere for his or her entertainment. Instead the diehard fan is questioning his or her loyalty to a sport that can’t seem to go a decade without engaging in civil war. And the apathy… the apathy is everywhere.

Instead of asking who will win the Cup we're asking ourselves, "will we be back?" And for most of us, despite a bit of posturing of our own, the answer is likely "yes". People talk a big game but the fact is most of them are big-game talking on hockey sites like this, on Twitter, among other hockey fans. If they were going to be gone, they’d just go instead of lingering in places dedicated to something they’re cutting loose. It’s just as big a game of chicken between the fans and the NHL as it is between the NHL and the union, and just like in the CBA negotiations the owners will probably win out in the end.

So the issue isn't if we’ll be coming back; the issue is how. Whether the increasing sense of apathy is real or just a product of the microscope of social media is yet to be determined but one has to wonder just how many jerseys will be sold this time around, how many fans will choose to watch from home instead of paying inflated ticket prices to watch it live. Instead of coveting a pristine new sweater, perhaps the fans will opt for a simple red shirt.

We've been here before, of course. Lockouts aren't fun for anyone, and lockouts that end in the loss of a season are about as bad as they get. And yet seven years ago this all seemed easier to take as a fan. There was a sense, perhaps in hindsight but present nonetheless, that this was something the League needed to right itself and make the product great again - a cleansing rebuild that established some parity and introduced a newer, faster game. There were big name stars just starting out who would go on to dominate those first few years; there were exciting playoff runs of continued excellence for some and new-found dominance by others. It's a business and this was part of it, we understood that even if we didn't like it - and the result improved both the business and the hockey itself.

Not this time, though, and that is perhaps the most frustrating part. Instead of a cleansing, it's merely destruction for destruction's sake. Nothing new is being built; it feels senseless and hollow. Even more so than last time this seems to be nothing more than rich people arguing with richer people about how best to divide the riches – a vast oversimplification to be sure, but one that is hard to shake after weeks of petty squabbling over hundreds of millions of dollars.

Because when all is said and done, when the dust settles, when any other number of cliches to describe the conclusion of the lockout take place, nothing much will have changed... except perhaps for the fans. Because we're getting tired of having to overlook all of that greed and anger for the love of the game. We're getting tired of waiting.

And after 90 days (and counting), we're getting tired of everything that is "instead of hockey".

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