Thursday, October 11, 2012
Fans need owners to defend them
By Scott Burnside
One of our favorite parts of the old Peanuts comic strip penned by Charles M. Schulz (who, by the by, was a devout hockey fan) was the interaction between the Peanuts gang and adults.
The teachers always made a "mawwmwawwmwamwmwaaaa" sound in the strip, denoting the kind of disconnect that often exists between adults and kids.
As we pass what would have been opening night of the 2012-13 regular season, it's hard not to imagine that's the noise the NHL's owners hear whenever they're confronted by anyone offering a critical voice.
The players want the owners to live by the contracts they signed with the players.
The fans want their beloved game back after watching an entire season slip away just eight years ago.
Media keep asking why the owners and players can't agree on a deal after years of unbridled success -- success lovingly trumpeted by the league itself -- including a record $3.3 billion in revenues last season.
It's a collective willful disconnect that explains why we aren't seeing Michel Therrien's return to the Montreal Canadiens bench as the Habs open the season at home against the surprising Ottawa Senators and Jack Adams finalist Paul MacLean.
This willful disconnect is why we aren't watching the St. Louis Blues, many observers' pick to come out on top in the Western Conference, testing the under-the-radar Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
Has it always been thus or is this ignorance of public sentiment buzzing around the owners' ears like an annoying gnat something particular to this current lockout, the third of commissioner Gary Bettman's tenure?
What is strange about the owners acting the part of the Peanuts gang is that it belies the humanity of the men and women who actually own these teams.
We recall sitting with Rocky Wirtz during the first period of Game 2 of the 2010 Stanley Cup finals in Chicago. The Madhouse on Madison was in full frenzy, the scent of the team's first Stanley Cup since 1961 in the air, and Wirtz was treated with the kind of reverence normally afforded rock stars and royalty.
Sitting happily in seats his father Bill Wirtz almost never used because he couldn't stand the heckling from the few fans who bothered to show up at the rink, Rocky Wirtz earned every bit of the adoration, having single-handedly dragged the Blackhawks from irrelevance to being the hottest ticket in Chicago.
Wirtz is part of an ownership group that remains muted and cocooned as it engages in yet another great stare-off with the players.
If it's hard to reconcile the view from the outside, imagine what it must be like to be a fan in Chicago.
What about Mike and Marian Ilitch?
The Ilitchs are icons in Detroit for their unwavering support of the beleaguered city. When it was first proposed that the Red Wings host the 2013 Winter Classic -- an event that looks more and more like it will be a casualty of this battle of stupidity -- the Red Wings insisted that the bulk, if not all, of the events take place in Detroit, as opposed to Ann Arbor, where the game is set to take place at Michigan Stadium.
Yet they, too, remain mute, quietly complicit in the potential destruction of another season.
In a blue-collar community that has been hit as hard by the recession as any in the U.S., it must be galling for fans to see the NHL and their beloved Red Wings fritter away all the goodwill built up since the last lockout by trying to bully the players into accepting concessions to help fix a system the owners demanded and got seven years ago.
In general, fans and, for the most part, the media, remain perplexed as to how two sides with so much at stake and with so much going for them could allow this to happen.
Certainly the players are not immune from blame in this dispute. They received too much of a share of league revenues -- 57 percent -- last time, and need to move closer to a 50-50 split. Although the owners have at least moved off their opening position, no matter how odious it was to the players, the players have been reluctant to take a leadership role in getting a deal done. As the first games of the regular season were going by the boards, deputy commissioner Bill Daly was beseeching the players to come up with another proposal in the hopes of moving the process forward.
Still, the relationship between fans and players will always be different than the relationship between fans and owners. Players are more transient but owners and fans are like neighbors who have to get along if the relationship is going to flourish.
Ted Leonsis is among the most accessible of owners in the NHL and has presided over a remarkable renaissance of his own, the fans having made Washington one of the best markets on the NHL circuit. During Caps games, Leonsis always gets a rousing ovation when his visage appears on the video scoreboard.
Leonsis, like all owners or league personnel, is forbidden from talking during this dispute, but one wonders how his relationship with his devoted fan base will be altered if an entire season is wiped out.
How can he in good conscience expect the same support, having been part of a group that betrayed his own fan base?
Mark Chipman helped bring the NHL back to Winnipeg after the Jets left for Phoenix in the summer of 1996. He is a checked-shirt-and-jeans kind of guy you'd be happy to have on your slo-pitch team or to run into at the local pub.
But Jets fans get the same treatment from Chipman and the rest of the Jets' ownership group as fans in 29 other cities do -- which is to say the 1,000-yard stare, the stare that says "I don't see you and won't see you until it's convenient for me to see you again."
Their stories litter the NHL landscape: the good deeds done by Ed Snider in Philadelphia and the Samueli family in Anaheim, the local owners of the Nashville Predators, Mario Lemieux et al in Pittsburgh.
Yet those relationships seem insignificant in the face of financial expediency.
If it were not so, wouldn't Wirtz, the Ilitch family, Leonsis, Chipman and the rest of the owners have made their voices heard within the cozy confines of the NHL's New York boardrooms? Wouldn't they have spoken up and defended the relationships they've worked so hard to forge in those cities, demanded something different?
In the end, as we lament the limp passing of what would have been the first day of the regular season, one wonders whether at some point down the road these owners will regret having sold off part of their humanity, what they have strived for in their communities, for a bigger financial payday.
Seems like a perilously high cost for a part of your soul.