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Owners, "Owners" and Richard Fenno

What one truism of American politics tells us about who fans hold responsible for the lockout... and why that means things aren't likely going to change.


Let’s do a little thought experiment. On a scale of zero-to-100 which represents your personal approval rating of someone else’s actions (100 being complete agreement), what number would you currently assign to the owner of your favorite NHL team? Next, what number would you currently assign to “NHL owners” as a group?

There’s a belief regarding American politics known as Fenno’s Paradox which states that people generally hold their own Congressman (or Congresswoman) in relatively high regard despite having negative feelings towards the legislative body as a whole – “Congress stinks, but my guy ain’t the problem.” A number of explanations help to understand why the theory tends to hold true, including personal interactions and good ol’ self-interest (“This pork-barrel spending has got to stop… but it sure is nice that we got that bridge project funded!”), but ultimately one result of Fenno’s Paradox is to preserve the status quo, more or less, despite their antipathy towards “the system.”

[Sidenote: Mentioning Fenno’s Paradox on a hockey blog is one of the most Washington, D.C. things ever.]

So how’d you answer our two questions at the top?

There may very well be exceptions here (I’m looking at you, Boston), but a random sampling of hockey fans would almost certainly reflect something similar to Fenno’s Paradox applying to hockey (Fenton’s Paradox, perhaps) – fans undoubtedly have a more positive opinion of “their” owner than they do of Gary Bettman’s bosses, generally. Even here in D.C., where Ted Leonsis has been labeled a “hard-liner” in CBA negotiations, you’d expect that to hold true; personal interactions and what he has done for his constituency have certainly earned him a stockpile of goodwill among the team’s rational fans, present-day events notwithstanding.

Now, the relationship between hockey fans and hockey owners isn’t the same as that between citizens and their elected representatives, but that doesn’t mean hockey fans don’t have a vote – their votes are their dollars. And while those votes won’t immediately effect change or allow those who cast (or in this case don’t cast) them to hand-pick successors, they’re by no means meaningless. The difficulty is in gathering enough of them together to make an impact… just as it is in politics. Public accountability? It's easier in theory than in practice.

Which brings us back to Fenno. As the 2012-13 NHL season appears to be teetering on the brink of cancellation, there’s plenty of blame to go around for why we are where we are, with the majority of it likely falling at the feet of the owners and their highest-paid non-player employee, Mr. Bettman. But until more specific owners are held accountable – by fans, by media, by players – don’t expect anything to change. Are fans going to "punish" the owners - their owner - by staying away from the game entirely? Probably not in huge numbers. After all, for most hockey fans, it’s not their guy who is the problem. It rarely is.