“I know some people in Canada who have just walked away from [the NHL] and are not willing to return, saying they are simply not interested anymore.”
“People are pretty blasé about the settlement. Personally, I’m fed up with the NHL. ... It’s going to take people a while to get over this.”
— post-lockout Victoria hockey fans
Nicole Girard understands the fans’ anger, but hopes they come back when big league hockey resumes. To put food on her table, she needs to put beer on theirs.
Girard works at Victoria’s Shark Club, which, relative to the National Hockey League lockout, is a trailer park in a hurricane. A sports bar without hockey is like Whistler without snow.
“Instead of working 40 hours a week, I’m working 30,” she said Monday. Worse, her hourly pay has effectively dropped, the tips falling off with the number of customers.
Her co-workers are in the same bind. “It has probably taken a couple of hundred dollars, easily, out of everybody’s pocket each week.”
It’s people like Girard, collateral damage in the just-ended war between the NHL’s millionaire players and billionaire owners, who have Dave Saunders hoping fans will come back to support those small businesses caught in the crossfire.
But the former Colwood mayor is still angry at the league — and wants it put in a position where it never again gets to hurt communities and businesses with impunity.
Saunders believes Canadian NHL cities should build safeguards into their municipal-services agreements with their teams, penalties that would be triggered should another lockout occur eight years from now when the league and its players get their next opportunity to drop the gloves.
The NHL and its players reap the benefit of all the money and effort communities put into nurturing the game — building rinks, coaching players, sponsoring teams — yet suffer no consequences when those cities are clobbered by a labour dispute, he says. Municipalities get saddled with huge bills (policing the 2011 playoffs cost Vancouver close to $2 million) to support teams that just shrug when their actions hurt others. “We shouldn’t tolerate it as fans, and we shouldn’t tolerate it as cities,” Saunders said Monday. “Without the communities, they wouldn’t have the players.”
Saunders is passionate about the game. He has been on skates since age three, played a bit of junior in the ’80s before hurting his knee, has coached his daughters’ teams for the past nine years and suits up for a rec team today.
In December, he and some of his rec-league buddies fired off a registered letter to the NHL and its players association, warning of a backlash should they not show their fans more respect. “We have still not heard back from them, which we kind of expected, but it shows some of their arrogance.”
That brings us back to the question of whether NHL fans, having endured their third lengthy lockout in 18 years, will finally take their affections elsewhere.
“A lot of the guys around the dressing room, they’re just not going to come back,” Saunders says. At least, that’s what they say.
History says otherwise, that resentful Canadians might play hard to get for a bit, but will eventually embrace the NHL again. There were 4,112 empty seats at the Vancouver Canucks’ first post-lockout game in the shortened 1994-95 season. Then, having made their point, the fans flocked to the rink as though the Canucks were selling chocolate-covered salvation. The team has, in fact, sold out more than 400 consecutive games dating back to Nov. 14, 2002.
As for those quotes at the top of this column, the first was made by a Victoria fan after the NHL lockout of 2004-05, and the second after the lockout that ended Jan. 13, 1995.
Some say it’s different this time, though. “I know a lot of people are really angry,” says Girard, back at the Shark Club. That’s probably good news. Anger is just the flip side of love.
What the NHL and the small businesses that depend on it should fear is apathy, the reaction of fans so alienated that they simply no longer care.
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