Is the NHL wrecking its brand during the lockout?

McMaster University communications expert Alex Sevigny says the NHL and its players are doing "real damage" to their connection with hockey fans.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, right, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly speak to reporters, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in New York. The NHL rejected the players' latest offer for a labour deal. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

The NHL is totally mismanaging its connection with hockey fans, according to a McMaster University communications expert.

"Fans don't appear to be a part of the equation lately," said Alex Sevigny, an associate professor of communications at McMaster. "They've been taken for granted, it seems."

Sevigny says both the NHL and its players are trying to lock fans out of the conversation surrounding the work stoppage, just like they did in 2004.

And post-social media boom, that just doesn't fly, he says.

"Almost everyone I know watches hockey with a smartphone or tablet in hand," Sevigny said.

So people get connected to the sport in ways they never did before. Through Twitter hashtags, player posts and Facebook groups, the NHL experience has become more community-oriented.

Key elements the NHL wants

  • A 10-year term for the CBA, with a mutual reopener after eight years (the NHLPA offered eight years, with an option to opt out after year 6).
  • No compliance buyouts (buyouts of player contracts that don't count against a team's salary cap).
  • Contract term limits of five years, which deputy commissioner Bill Daly described as "the hill we will die on."

Take the Stanley Cup champion LA Kings, who have almost 178,000 Twitter followers. Then there's the Montreal Canadiens, with over 335,000 followers — not to mention individual players with their own accounts.

A quick glance at Facebook yields similar results. The Toronto Maple Leafs have 633,000 "likes" on their page. Fans are definitely more connected to the sport.

But that's only the case when things are rosy, Sevigny says.

"When there's a problem, fans get excluded. And that's telling people that they're clients, not members of a community," he said.

"In an age of social media, people want to participate. They want to be part of the conversation — so you can't just turn community on and off."

A glimmer of hope, crushed

A deal to save the season seemed tantalizingly close last week — but collective bargaining talks imploded in spectacular fashion on Thursday night.

Pittsburgh Penguins' star Sidney Crosby, left, and Don Fehr, executive director for the National Hockey League Players Association, after talks broke down in the NHL labour dispute Thursday. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Association, raised hopes after tabling a new proposal during an hour-long meeting on Thursday night and claiming the sides were "clearly very close, if not on top of one another in connection with most of the major issues."

The optimism didn't last long. A voicemail left on union special counsel Steve Fehr's cellphone during the press conference carried an important message: Not only was the NHL flatly rejecting the union's offer, it was also pulling all the concessions it made earlier in the week off the table.

By the time commissioner Gary Bettman met reporters, he was in a rage over the enthusiasm Donald Fehr expressed while characterizing the status of negotiations.

"I find it almost incomprehensible he did that," said Bettman, who shook as he spoke.

Heading to other avenues

Sevigny says with all this jockeying for position and public posturing, the NHL is doing "real damage" to its brand.

"A lot of people perceive professional sports as a public good," he said. "And with all these new lines of communication open, people just won't be ignored anymore."

If anything, the league is pushing fans to other places to get their hockey fix, he says.

"People that love hockey don't necessarily love the NHL," he said. "And other enterprises may present themselves."

Whether that's the AHL, OHL or minor leagues—- the NHL is going to have a hard time drawing people back into the community they'd built, he says.

"That risk is just growing and growing," Sevigny said.

"You have to remember — there is a powerful emotional and mythological connection for people when it comes to hockey."

With files from the Canadian Press