Oldfield: NHL, players must reach out to fans

A simple "Thank You Fans" decal on the ice won't cut it this time. The NHL and its players must make a meaningful post-lockout effort to repair their relationship with the people that make their league possible, writes labour expert Dan Oldfield.
Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges, left, used Twitter to organize a Boxing Day outdoor hockey game with fans at a neighbourhood rink in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

So the lockout is virtually over.

Lawyers are checking the wording of the tentative labour agreement, every detail is being examined, and votes and conference calls are being organized.

But unless there is a spectacular failure, the NHL is back.

You can count on seeing the players and owners making nice in front of the cameras, sending positive tweets and shining light on the future. It’s inevitable, now that paycheques have been promised and the folks who lease the luxury boxes are sending in their orders for food and beverages to celebrate the first home game.

But let’s stay real: harm has been done. On sports talk shows and online forums, people are shouting that they will boycott games, even though past experience in Canada suggests probably not. Still, I can’t predict what will happen in Tampa or Phoenix, but I know here in Canada a faith has been broken.

From the frozen slough on the prairies, to the chilly rinks in the Maritimes and the neighbourhood streets in Ontario, the game has gone on. It is a part of us. If you grew up in this country, chances are you know the clatter of sticks on pavement and shouts of "Car!" as a road hockey game is briefly disrupted. You have lived the early mornings in cold rinks with bad coffee and you know deep in your soul the uncontested delight of a pickup game on a frozen pond or backyard rink.

Two dollars off the price of a ticket and a big "Thank You Fans" decal painted on the ice won’t cut it.

There’s an old proverb that goes like this: "A vision without a plan is a dream — a plan without a vision is a nightmare." The meaning is that a plan needs to be developed based on a vision of what needs to be accomplished.

The plan for the league and its players fundamentally comes down to taking concrete and specific action to repair the many damaged relationships.

They will need to focus on all relationships: their relationship with each other and, just as important if not more so, they need to focus on the fans who allow this game to be played at its highest level.

Must invest in fans

There are those who might think that once a collective agreement has been reached there’s little, if anything, left to be done other than lacing them up and dropping the puck. Not true. The parties have many critical tasks if they want to repair their reputations and ensure the continued survival of the league. It is obvious they don’t speak the same language, but they must agree they can’t do this again. They can’t put fans, sponsors and each other through a process every few years that threatens their very existence.

They must first find a way to develop an ongoing relationship with each other. Such a relationship will need to understand the needs of the owners and the players. Within this relationship they will need to find ways of talking about problems throughout the life of a deal with an honest attempt to resolve differences. They need to find ways of meeting outside of the confrontational environment, and in doing so develop reasonable levels of trust.

They should think of every day as an opportunity to increase mutual understandings that will be part of the process in reaching the next collective agreement. It is encouraging to see they’ve already created a joint committee to focus on their relationship.

They must reach out to fans, not in some phony "thank you, fans" campaign but in a sincere "we know what we’ve done, we deeply regret it and will try to restore your faith in us if you give us a chance" way.

They need to encourage fans to express themselves and they need to listen. Much has been done in recent years to improve the on-ice product, but fans continue to complain about high ticket prices and costly concessions.

In the same way investments are made in the product and facilities, some investment needs to be made in the fan base.

Of course, this will not be easy. I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced situations where I’ve been part of a major change in the ways unions and companies have managed the way we deal with each other. These are satisfying and productive relationships.

It’s hard work, it’s every-day work, but it’s worth it.

Dan Oldfield is the lead negotiator for the Canadian Media Guild, a former journalist, and a longtime hockey fan.