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Monday, January 3, 2005
Updated: February 9, 2:31 PM ET
Fans' immunity mistaken for apathy

By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com

The line being used most often during the current NHL lockout is, "No one cares that there is no hockey."

This is obviously an oversimplification and exaggeration. I care. A lot. Watching and following hockey is one of my passions. I enjoy the everyday-ness of it, and the storylines and developments a season brings. There are a lot of others like me. Polls may say one thing, but when a pollster calls someone about the lockout, "I don't care" sometimes means "Get a deal done."

Exit polls had John Kerry as our next president.

SportsNation Poll
The following question was posted on ESPN.com from 6 p.m. ET Thursday to 9 a.m. ET Friday.
Do you care that the NHL is expected to cancel the 2004-05 season?
  Votes Pct.
YES 38,967 27%
NO 107,547 73%
Total 146,514  
  YES NO
State* Votes Pct. Votes Pct.
Michigan 2067 41% 2956 59%
Colorado 920 37% 1582 63%
Pennsylvania 2628 36% 4766 64%
Vermont 137 36% 240 64%
New Jersey 1733 33% 3502 67%
Wyoming 40 33% 83 67%
International 3232 32% 6728 68%
New York 2981 32% 6193 68%
Delaware 117 31% 259 69%
Minnesota 885 31% 2014 69%
Florida 1480 29% 3603 71%
New Hampshire 164 29% 395 71%
Maine 175 28% 450 72%
Massachusetts 1870 28% 4721 72%
Montana 65 28% 168 72%
Rhode Island 283 28% 734 72%
Arizona 597 27% 1642 73%
Connecticut 548 27% 1510 73%
North Dakota 84 27% 232 73%
Alaska 63 26% 181 74%
Maryland 711 26% 2042 74%
Missouri 831 26% 2370 74%
Virginia 1574 26% 4571 74%
Nevada 212 25% 639 75%
California 3066 24% 9803 76%
Ohio 1343 24% 4353 76%
Georgia 884 23% 3008 77%
New Mexico 65 22% 234 78%
Tennessee 395 22% 1385 78%
Wisconsin 650 22% 2258 78%
Illinois 1473 21% 5536 79%
North Carolina 701 21% 2671 79%
South Dakota 137 21% 510 79%
Utah 207 21% 797 79%
Washington 658 21% 2410 79%
Arkansas 121 20% 498 80%
Idaho 83 20% 327 80%
Iowa 327 20% 1336 80%
Nebraska 195 20% 761 80%
Oregon 288 20% 1142 80%
South Carolina 218 20% 857 80%
Texas 1361 20% 5468 80%
West Virginia 84 20% 346 80%
Indiana 481 19% 2020 81%
Oklahoma 228 19% 985 81%
Hawaii 78 17% 384 83%
Kansas 192 17% 951 83%
Alabama 168 16% 892 84%
Kentucky 173 15% 997 85%
Louisiana 172 15% 949 85%
Mississippi 51 14% 314 86%
* - Votes calculated by location of Internet Service Provider (ISP).
One reason why it appears that people don't care about the NHL lockout is because local and national media are barely even covering it. We are a media-driven culture. Call-in radio shows, newspapers, SportsCenter and columnists set the tone, build the drama, and are the best marketers and promoters for sports leagues. If these people don't talk about the lockout, cover it, or give it a face, it will get squashed under Andrianne Curry, "The Surreal Life," "Real Sex #108," and "Seinfeld" reruns.

A second a reason for this "No one cares" mentality is what I talked about a in early December, that if the NFL, NBA or MLB went through a lockout today followers would have a similar reaction.

The athlete is no longer linked with the fan. Athletes may have always made more than the average American, but it was always in the same ballpark. It wasn't too long ago that athletes held offseason jobs to make ends meet. Even when athletes no longer needed a second job, they were still living in neighborhoods with the middle-class American. That has all changed. Athletes are now a part of the nation's elite. They have incomes, attitudes, and demeanors of rich country-clubbers. Some fans resent that wholly, but most understand sports generate a lot of money and the worker should get a fair share, even if means Brian Rolston makes 100 times more than my son's kindergarten teacher. That's hard to stomach, but we understand the Minnesota Wild generates more money than Wapping Elementary School in South Windsor, Conn.

What turns fans away is when these millionaires hold out, don't play hurt, act childishly, or refuse to play because of a disagreement of cash allocation. NHL players are being locked out, but the inability of their leadership to make a deal in the current economic climate and some of the comments made by the players is what forces most fans to tune out. This is because years of strikes, lockouts, and contract holdouts have caused the fan to acquire a sports/emotional immune system. They are no longer devastated when the players stop playing. Fans are prepared for it because they now expect it. No sport is immune from it, except individual sports, and team sports are in danger of losing more of their fans to these individual sports. Fans expect it and the thought of greedy millionaires complaining for more becomes physically revolting. And since they could NEVER associate themselves with billionaire owners in suits who often came from money, the fans turn their backs in anger on the once poor-to-middleclass athletes who made it big and then turned their backs on the poor-to-middleclass fan by asking for more and more, while completely disregarding the people who provided that money in the first place.

This is what upsets fans and this is why supposedly "No one cares." Baseball sensed the storm last time and prevented another strike and another possible cancellation of the World Series. Other sports take heed.

NHL owner and player alike, hear me now and consider me later. The fans are done with your idiotic and childish greed. They cheer and spend and emotionally invest, but they are also, deep inside, fed up and prepared. Prepared to walk away and move on. Prepared to forget about all the good will and good times. Prepared to forget about all the money they gave, all the men they've made millions. They are prepared not to care. After all, they are just following your lead.

E-Mail Bag
John,
When all of this mess is sorted out and we have a new system in place, would the NHL ever consider Cleveland again? Now that Mr. Gund has sold the Cavaliers, I think it would be easier to move a team here. What are your thoughts?

Mike
Cleveland, Ohio

Northeast Ohio is a fantastic sports region. Jacobs Field is in my list of Top 5 Baseball Parks, the Browns are an institution, and the Cavs have the best basketball player of the next 12 years. There is good hockey in the suburbs now, and a team would certainly only help hockey participation. But I wouldn't go to Cleveland. Football is a monolith in Ohio from high school to the NFL, and with a baseball team and basketball team already firmly in place a Cleveland hockey team wouldn't get the free publicity to break thorough the white noise in Cleveland.

Yo Bucci,
I was hoping you could settle a debate between a buddy and me: If Wayne Gretzky played in the current era and Peter Forsberg played in the 80s, would Forsberg be known as "The Great One?" Forsberg averaged like 1.5 points/game last year. Doesn't that translate into like 7 points/game in the 80s? Plus, Wayne is a total wuss. I would have Peter's children if physiologically possible.

Go Avs and Tigers,
Norbert Hill
Colorado College

Wayne Gretzky was and is the single greatest offensive force of all time. No player has ever had a higher IQ or more acute understanding of time and space than Wayne Gretzky. Wayne was not a wuss. He was a small man who looked to make plays every second of every game. Plus, he was a great goal scorer. I know, DUH. Peter Forsberg is not a great goal scorer. His career high is 30. As far as assists, Gretzky's career high was 163 in the 1985-86 season. I don't think Peter would have neared that total had he played in the 80s, but I think he would have been over 100 a season a few times. Forsberg's IQ is also off the charts and he thinks pass first. So, as long as he had good teammates, as both players had most of their careers, Forsberg would have had huge numbers in the 80s. Had Wayne played in his prime in today's NHL, his numbers certainly would have gone down. NHL defensemen skate much better, move much better laterally and are bigger. Also, there is a lot less net to shoot at. Goaltenders have demonstrably improved with bigger and better equipment, enormous sweaters, and better conditioning and training. That being said, Wayne still would have been the best offensive player with his IQ, awareness and drive. He would have risen to the challenge.

John,
For those starved for hockey during the lockout, I highly recommend the DVD box set recently released by the Red Wings. It features the greatest Wings games as voted by the fans  No. 1 being the 1997 regular-season meeting between the Wings and Avs, i.e. the grudge match after Claude Lemieux rammed Kris Draper's head in the boards. There's just nothing like watching Brendan Shanahan giving Patrick Roy a flying clothesline in super slo-mo.

-- James J. Bonsignore, Esq.

As long as we are on the topic of endorsements, I just got Satellite Radio. If you love sports and you love music, you HAVE to get satellite radio. There is no debate. Like iPOD's, TiVo's and garage door openers, there is NO downside to Satellite Radio for a sports fan/music fan.

Hey Mr. Buccigross,
I was having this discussion (not in a taxi headed downtown but &) with some friends at work. With all the debate over the shootout to put an end to the tie game in hockey, we had a different thought.

Having watched the shootout in the AHL this year, my opinion has changed on it as a resolution. It is fun to watch, but there is something unsatisfying when it's done. A "that's it?" feeling. Many crowds don't even seem to realize when the shootout is over.

How many games shorter would the season have to be to have the continuous sudden-death overtime as is played in the postseason?

If the season is shortened to 75 or 70 games, is it reasonable to ask the players to play 5-on-5 until there is a winner. No points for a loss and a simple W/L record. Sure, there would be the random game that goes to 7 OTs, but how often does that really happen?

Any thoughts?

Thanks for keeping the hope alive,
Joshua
Chicago

I am pro-shootout, especially in light of the NHL rehabilitation/reconstruction issue that must be addressed when hockey returns. That being said, I would play 10 minutes of 4-on-4. Games are faster now with hurry up offside and will be even quicker with the tag up offside, so we will have time. Ten minutes of 4-on-4 may also would be a good case study for 4-on-4 hockey in the future, if the game is still choked with the new rules. Keeping shootouts special and the exception would be a best-case scenario. In a shootout scenario, I would make it a big show. I'd bring both teams on the ice in an All-Star game skills setting. I'd have them have the option of taking their helmets off and I'd have the P.A. announcer keep the people informed. "The Avalanche lead the shootout 3-1. The Blues must score here or the Avalanche wins the shootout." I'd even play dramatic music at medium volume to add some theatre. Let's have some fun in the regular season! There ARE goals being scored. Gosh, I'd love to see Ilya Kovalchuk go one on one with Martin Brodeur after 70 minutes of play with 49 total shots on goal and two goals. We'll know if it will work by how it looks and feels, so let's try it. If it's corny or uncomfortable we'll scrap it. I'll give you 70 minutes. Give me a regular-season shootout and let me produce it.

John,
Do you think if fans organized they would be able to put pressure on the players and owners to get this thing done?
Kaitlyn

No. Owners care about franchise values and players care about personal wealth. Neither has any real concern for you.

Hey John,
Do you think the league would ever fix the next draft to make sure Sidney Crosby ends up in a major market? I don't know about you, but I'd like to see him go to Chicago. LORD KNOWS that franchise needs a boost, and having a player like him in a top-three market can only be great for that city and the league. Also, do you think Crosby and Jarome Iginla can save the league whenever they come back?

Serrone Khan

Would the league fix the next draft lottery? Of course not. But if there is no season, they may make the next lottery draft equal in terms of probability for all of the teams who didn't make the playoffs last season, which gives Crosby a chance to land in one of the top three media markets in the U.S.: Los Angeles, Chicago or New York.

Mr. Buccigross,
I wonder how much the continued talk about how "no one in the US gives a damn about hockey" ticks you off, because it's really starting to boil my blood. You want to talk about damaging a league's fan base, I wonder how many other U.S. hockey fans are put off by the seemingly endless supply of mouthpieces telling us that we essentially don't matter by misrepresenting our numbers and zeal. You want a sure-fire way to alienate your fan base? Keep telling them how irrelevant they are. Want to know why hockey viewership is down? IT'S NEVER ON TV! I'm in college, and I can't afford the NHL Center Ice package. Even when the games were on ESPN2, I never knew when games were going to be on and my beloved Sharks (or any West Coast team for that matter) were rarely on, so I'd listen on the radio rather than watch yet another Colorado/Detroit/Rangers game. At least I have the Fresno Falcons to pull me through...at least minor league teams appreciate their fans.

Matt
Fresno, Calif.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.