Back on ice: Is the NHL in danger of losing casual fans in shortened season?

Jan. 7 was a polarizing day for the NHL, after the 113-day lockout ended with the NHL and NHLPA agreeing on a new 10-year CBA (it can also expire in eight years). Amongst the simultaneous sighs of relief from players, staff and happy NHL fans, the groans of more pessimistic people made themselves present.

This is the third time under commissioner Gary Bettman that a work shortage has happened and also yet another time where fans were thought of last.

During the lockout, fans had to wade through hope-inducing statements such as, “We have made progress today,” only to have the next meeting between the two sides be summed up with a depressing quote from both sides.

With hockey-related revenue, contract length and salary caps being the big issues in the negotiations, it seemed to fans that the NHL was losing track of who was providing the money they were fighting over.

“I felt it was weird that they were fighting over money that they weren’t making,” said Alex Watkins, a die-hard Red Wings fan and DePaul sophomore.

After having one of the most profitable years in their history, debatably because of the increase in marketing and in casual/new fans, the league spurned all of that, making the possibility of losing a casual fan base even more inevitable.

Carlos Rodriguez, sports director of Radio DePaul and DePaul sophomore, first got interested in hockey after the Stanley Cup run by the Blackhawks in 2010. He can see what this lockout does to the new fans.

“It is frustrating to see a lockout, as it hinders my ability to learn about the sport and maybe even buy a ticket to see it live,” said Rodriguez. “The lockout essentially pushes hockey back to a time when fewer people cared about it, so it’s not good for financial and visibility reasons.”

Yet the focus should no longer be on the NHL nearly losing a season – the focus should lie upon a shortened season. The last season that was shortened was in 1994-1995, which featured Cinderella runs by several teams that would normally not even be mentioned with the playoffs. The New York Rangers would eventually win in a season that was described as “a sprint instead of a marathon,” as the Calgary Herald put it.

Not only will sprinting put more teams under pressure, since any lost game could be that one to miss the playoffs, this will also help the fans. Since there are not as many games, people who did not have the time to follow all 82 games will now be treated with fewer games. As Rodriguez puts it, it is a “good stepping stone for the new fan who is not ready to immerse himself completely into the sport, but wishes to see it played at its highest level.”

However, for several die-hard hockey fans, the league is a greedy entity not worth their money or time. They have plenty of other options as well, as Watkins noticed around the cancelation of the highly hyped Winter Classic.

“I figured out that the American Hockey League was a good replacement if there was no hockey after going to a lot of Grand Rapids Griffins games,” said Watkins. “There would be other hockey to watch if there was no season, but I’m still glad it’s back.”

While the immediate effect of the lockout on the fanbase has yet to be seen since the season has yet to start, there is no doubt that some will be angry or cheering. Regardless, all fans can be glad that nobody will have to go through this again – at least not for another eight years.