It was announced on Friday that the NHL has canceled its annual New Year's Day outdoor game, formally known as the Winter Classic. The main reason, of course, is due to Friday being the 48th day of the lockout of the players by the owners.
This is sad news to a lot of my friends who are huge hockey fans and have been posting on facebook about how disappointed they really are about this whole mess. I feel for them because I know when you're a die-hard fan of something, even if nobody else shares in your excitement, you don't care. You just know you love it, and you look forward to enjoying it each and every time you get the opportunity.
Unfortunately for hockey fans, they may not get to enjoy their favorite sport anytime soon. Last I heard, 18 of the 30 NHL franchises are losing money. Normally, I would be on the players' side in this whole mess, but if your bosses aren't making any money, you need to concede more than your share, or you're probably not going to have a job in the future, anyway. I won't get into the particulars, but the main point of contention, just like with the NFL work-stoppage a year ago, is the owners' desire to decrease the overall piece of the pie for the players.
Regardless of what happens, or who is the blame in this lockout, the real sad reality for the NHL is that nobody cares that much, at least not the majority of the country. I'm sure it's headline news everyday in Canada, where hockey is a religion akin to what football has become in America. But in places like Nashville and Tampa, I'm thinking college football is probably the main topic this time of year. Heck, that's generally the case anyway, work-stoppage or no work-stoppage.
As for someone like me, the casual hockey fan, this work-stoppage has been a litmus test of my true level of hockey fandom. And I obviously do not pass. I often find myself forgetting there even is a lockout. For a league that has had a niche following forever in America, I'm sure I'm the rule and not the exception.
The 2004 lockout is what probably saved the league and made it healthier. And it damn sure saved a team like the Penguins, who were dangerously close to either folding up shop or moving elsewhere. The 2004 lockout created a salary cap and made it easier for teams like the Penguins to compete on equal footing.
Shortly after the '04 lockout, Sidney Crosby came to town, and as they say, the rest is history. The Penguins had a huge influx of young and exciting players, and I even upped my fandom of the sport and really got into the team's playoff runs from '07-'11. Remember game five of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals in Detroit between the Red Wings and Penguins, where Sergei Gonchar scored the game-winning goal in the third overtime to stave off elimination and force a game six? I actually celebrated like the Steelers just scored the game-winning touchdown in an NFL playoff game.
The next season, when the Pens finally reached the top of the mountain and brought home their first Stanley Cup in 17 seasons, I enjoyed the ride very much. In fact, many months later, my ex girlfriend and I waited in line for hours at the Heinz History Center just so we could get our picture taken with the Cup. It was a tremendous amount of fun and something I'll never forget.
Did it make me a die-hard fan? No, but I'm the kind of fan the NHL needs, and a work-stoppage, regardless of who's to blame, is the worst way to keep people like me even a little invested.
Sorry, NHL. There's a reason the Steelers never have giveaways at home games and the Penguins have the Student Rush program. The NHL needs to smooch a little more to get the fans to love it.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Where's my Terrible Towel?