It’s sub-zero degrees in the hills tonight and not a damn thing on, only hockey to keep us warm once again by the fires. One hundred and nineteen days’ worth of NHL lockout did nothing to endear to us the dumb brutes who either run or ruin this game on a whim, but we’re back at it now, aren’t we? Slobbering and salivating over a 48-game season like they gave us a gift as opposed to taking something away. Hockey fans are nothing but dumb loyal dogs, stupid animals who when hurt only feign offense, barking loudly with their tails between their legs but only moments later come running back all wide-eyed and whimsical, floppy-eared with their tongues dropping to the floor, pissing themselves out of the sheer contentment of being alive. No memory of the damage done. Absolutely none at all. When the first puck fell last Saturday we forgot all about all the wrongdoing, all the pussy wrangling and posturing for effect. We were content that hockey was back, but why?
The NHL’s nuclear winter, the third of its kind in the last 20 years, was good for nobody. It was an inevitable sort of affair, something we all knew by the third week would end in a 50-50 split for the players and the loss of at least a few weeks of hockey for the fans. But what was gained from a product perspective from arguing over make-whole provisions and money on the table? In 2004-05, otherwise known as the “Season Not Played,” rule changes as a result of the lockout increased the intensity of a hockey game: smaller pads for goalies, tag-up offsides and shootouts to resolve any and all ties made for a more offensive-minded game, something to up the ante for despondent fans then a year deprived of the game and with any luck a chance to engage outsiders, people on the fence about puck, to get on board.
And it worked. Hockey revenues and attendance, TV viewership and ad sales skyrocketed to the tune of a 70 percent increase in some places. Diehard hockey fans were of course just happy to have hockey back, but the up-tempo game brought legions of half-hearted fans back into the fold and a few more who’d never much cared for hockey but now, with a little more life, seemed interested.
But what has this lockout given us from a fan perspective? The Penguins, Hurricanes, Sharks and Lightning are all going the “happy fans aren’t hungry fans” route, giving out some variation of a free hot dog or soft drink for the first four games. The Blue Jackets and Red Wings are waiving Ticketmaster fees for a day. If you’re 12 you can go see the Stars for free in January or February (so long as you’re accompanied by an adult who paid full price for their ticket). And the Panthers have season ticket prices starting at seven dollars a game, with free parking and Florida jersey (but then, of course, you have to watch something like 24 games of Florida Panthers hockey, and won’t that be fun?).
So what? Hot dogs, hamburgers and some half-off sales? That’s what the fans got out of this lockout? Sports Illustrated recently pointed out that this would have been an ideal time to toy with an expanded postseason, a 20-team trial that pitted the bottom four teams in each division against each other in a single-game playoff for the final two spots.
And why not? With a weird half season not too many people are going to count anyway, why not experiment with expanded playoffs? For a league that just spent the better part of four months arguing over the inevitable, over who gets what and when, why wouldn’t you jump on four “Game Sevens,” aired back-to-back over two nights, that could possibly spike viewership above and beyond what any one game has ever seen (save probably a real Game Seven)? You simultaneously subdue any lingering resentment by giving the fans something they really want (not a silly coupon for a concession stand hot dog), you recoup some of the losses you let fly out the backdoor during the lockout and you get to take a substantial change to the game for a test drive without the pressure of a full season’s worth of hockey on the line.
It’s a no-brainer really. But in a league where the supply of brains to go around seems to be limited at this late date, it’s unsurprising that this was a road not taken.
Ah, well. At least Islanders fans are happy; they get to unload the unreal DiPietro contract under the new amnesty provisions. As for the rest of us, well, at least we have hockey.
And hot dogs…
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