Why The PR War Doesn't Matter

Someone just got the bill for their focus group. - Jonathan Daniel

The NHL and NHLPA are engaged in trying to win the hearts and minds of the fans.

The NHL has long maintained that they would not negotiate a new CBA with the NHLPA in public. Snippets of information would be released at different times, but the meat of the offers were never disclosed prior to the ratification of the new agreement.

That all changed earlier this week when the NHL released the full text of their latest CBA offer. It was a marked departure from their previous stance, and allowed fans and the media to see exactly what the NHL was proposing to the players in an effort to end the lockout and get NHL hockey back up and running.

When the offer was first released, there was a lot of optimism among fans. "Finally one side is making significant movement from their earlier position to try and end this stupid lockout" was something I'm sure a lot of people were thinking. The NHL promised that if the offer was accepted by October 25th, a full 82 game schedule could be played in 2012-13.

However, those good feelings were short-lived when the NHLPA responded by releasing the letter that Don Fehr sent out to the players in response to the NHL's offer. The tone of the letter definitely suggests that the PA, while recognizing the shift in tactics by the NHL, is still not happy with the current state of negotiations as they feel the players are still making too many concessions.

So we sit and wait for the players to respond with a counter-offer to the NHL, something that may happen Thursday. I believe that the type of offer that the players make will go a long way to determining whether this lockout continues or comes to a swift end.

And therein lies the problem for the players. For a long time, they were seen as the sympathetic figures in this mess. The lockout of 2004-05 was about the owners achieving cost certainty in the wake of skyrocketing player salaries, and they were able to achieve that with the implementation of a hard salary cap. An entire season was lost, but the owners seemed to get what they were looking for and hockey resumed.

Fast forward 7 years and here we are again, only this time the owners were not in a position to cry poor, yet did so anyway. Record revenues and a finite amount that could be spent on player salaries were significant holes in the argument that the owners needed to change the system under which they were operating.

If there were polls measuring public opinion, I'd guarantee that an overwhelming majority of people were supporting the players in this lockout, seeing them as the repressed party trying to tweak a system that was clearly working. The owners had gotten just about everything they wanted in the last lockout and here they are trying to overhaul a system that has seen them make more money than they ever have in the past.

I would normally have guessed that the owners didn't care about what the fans thought, even if Gary Bettman did pay lip service to us by calling us the "greatest fans in the world". These are men and corporations who are out to make money above everything else, and if they can get a system in place that will make them more money than ever before, they're going to do what they can to enact it despite what outsiders may think. These guys did not get into the positions they are in by worrying about what other people thought about them.

Yet my feelings were changed when it was leaked earlier this week that the NHL had hired a focus group in an effort to find out what fans were really thinking. This indication that the NHL clearly cared about the PR war (which up to that point was being won by the players) blew me away more than I thought it would.

It makes sense if you think about it. The owners want to make money. In order to do that, they need fans to go to the games, buy merchandise and concessions, and return to the game in the same numbers (or more) than ever before. Labor stoppages anger and alienate those fans. The fans are going to blame whoever was responsible for preventing the season from beginning.

So the NHL hires a focus group and then releases the full text of their latest offer that shows a big departure from their initial proposal. Without even getting into the specifics of the offer, one can't help but see this as a big PR move designed to shift the focus on to the players and make them out to be the bad guys for not compromising in an effort to end the lockout and get hockey back.

But does it ultimately matter? Are fans really that invested in who the "good" and "bad" guys are in this whole mess? I don't think so. I think all fans want is hockey, and if that means that either the players or owners get screwed in a new CBA, they will be able to compartmentalize their feelings on that while reveling in the fact that hockey is back (especially if it's the players that are short-changed again).

Fans are simple creatures. We want our teams to succeed and our rivals to fail. We want our favorite players to do well and be recognized as stars. We want to revel in our team's success with our fellow fans and mock others for the poor play of their team. We want hockey.

When I'm sitting in the stands watching the Red Wings take on the Blackhawks, I'm not thinking about how much each team is paying into the revenue sharing pool or what the players are going to get back in escrow at the end of the year. I'm not worried about whether our star prospect is in year 2 or 3 of their ELC, or whether our soon-to-be RFA is going to elect for arbitration or sign an offer sheet.

All I want is for the Red Wings to win. Nothing else matters. The next time the NHL or NHLPA feels that a focus group is necessary, I can save them a lot of money by pointing out that fans want hockey. How that happens is irrelevant.

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