The first skater to show up for Wednesday morning drop-in hockey isn’t even Canadian.
Fifteen-year-old German exchange student Patrick Schiebel was smitten by the game — the skill, the speed — a couple of months ago, but the locked out National Hockey League means nothing to him.
The second guy on Esquimalt’s Archie Browning arena ice isn’t an NHL fan, either. “This is my first game in 15 years,” says laid-off plumber Garrett Perkins, taping a stick bought on Boxing Day.
The third player, 42-year-old Corey Payne, grew up with the NHL but drifted away: too many teams, too little excitement. He would like to be turned on as he was by the Gretzky-era Oilers, but it’s hard to get worked up about the dulled-down Arkansas Ice Pigs, or whoever, in Gary Bettman’s sea of anonymity.
It’s only the fourth skater, Payne’s fellow Esquimalt firefighter Andrew Zado, 28, who really cares that the owners and players, having reached their version of the fiscal cliff, finally seem to be inching toward an armistice. “I can’t wait,” he says.
Yet even he is disillusioned. Where the last lockout, eight years ago, was partly about fixing a broken game, this one is just a greedfest, millionaire players and billionaire owners fighting over a fortune we can’t afford to pay. “It’s a $1,000 trip for my wife and I to go see a Vancouver Canucks game,” Zado says.
If the league, its players, sponsors and advertisers don’t hear alarm bells ringing, they’re in big, big trouble, says David Kincaid, on the phone from Toronto. Even if the NHL salvages a shortened season, as he believes it will, it will be trying to rekindle a love affair with a country that, increasingly, fails to gets aroused by the old Hockey Night In Canada theme music. Yes, the Leafs will still sell out, but the vital I-love-Wendel-Clark-more-than-my-wife connection will be gone.
Kincaid is CEO of Level5 Strategy, which does brand analysis for major corporations, measuring consumers’ emotional attachment to products.
Right now, Canadians feel about the hockey brand the way Don Cherry feels about Swedes. Not since the BP oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico has Kincaid been able to quantify such a negative reaction.
An in-depth, coast-to-coast survey conducted a month after the lockout began shows Canadians have lost touch with the game in general and the NHL in particular. Only a third of us remain passionate about a sport that is supposed to be inseparable from our national identity. One-third are neutral to hockey, its culture, its lifestyle. One third don’t care.
What should terrify the league, its sponsors and advertisers is that even the hard-core fans are disaffected, terms such as “bored” and “can’t relate” popping to the fore. “The range and depth of the negative emotions ... were somewhat alarming,” Kincaid says.
Sponsors will be wasting their money if they try to go back to business as usual — slapping ads on the arena boards, running TV commercials — before the damage to the fan base is repaired, Kincaid says. “The consumer has become so disenfranchised.”
Yet the league has taken the paying public for granted. “The NHL needs to get off its high horse a little bit and rub shoulders with the fans.”
If the league is blind, advertisers aren’t. They are wise enough to cleave to those aspects of the game that still trigger positive emotions while dissociating themselves from the bits that reek like the inside of a hockey bag.
Zealots/insomniacs who watched today’s 12:30 a.m. world junior championship match from Russia might have seen TV spots from Hockey Canada sponsors RBC and Nike that draw a clear line between the game (and country) fans love and the league they now despise.
Back at the Archie Browning rink in Esquimalt, Zado recognizes the distinction, too. “It doesn’t have to be the NHL to love hockey,” he says, pulling on his skates. “I love watching the juniors.”
That’s where Kincaid sees the ray of light. Most Canadians still keep a part of their hearts open. “Give me the right reason,” they say, “and I could become passionate again.”
> NHL and players talk as deadline looms, B3
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