As we inch* ever closer to what seems to be an inevitable lockout on September 15th which will delay training camps and cost us early-season hockey watching fun, there's not a lot of stuff to talk about other than the CBA negotiations. As with coverage on any contentious issue, the secondary focus to the nuts & bolts of the NHL labor agreement is how each side is framing their argument. Following that is the discussion about which side is doing a better job of doing such.
I'll come flat out and say it: I'm "rooting" for the players in this situation. I feel that with my knowledge of the last CBA, the promises which came out of the ashes of the 2004-05 season, and the lack of disclosure about the "fundamental economics" of the league (combined with just my personal preferences) makes it easier for me to paint the players in a sympathetic light and to hope they "win" the ongoing negotiations.
But none of that really matters; not to the owners, not to the players, not to league sponsors. What matters is that we care about the PR battle. As long as there's a battle going on, there isn't a loser (well... at least one who has a seat at the negotiating table).
While I side with the players in the current negotiations based on both sides' opening positions, I also want to make it abundantly clear that I'm a fan of watching hockey and I'm not a fan of being jerked around. I haven't signed any fan petitions or promised any boycotts just yet because I'm not at that point. When they say the fans will come running back, I'm one of the fans they're talking about. I have no idea how long that's going to last, so I can't make any promises or threats based on when that changes.
But what happens if they reach an agreement that I'm not completely in love with? What happens if both sides get to a new CBA and I'm left angry with one side and not the other? What particularly does it matter if I think the players got screwed and the owners got richer for it? How exactly do you go out and show support for the NHL players' side without helping the owners? Reverse the sides and ask the same question.
Am I going to mail checks directly to the NHLPA to keep some of my money out of the owners' hands? Or would I make it a personal quest to buy a Hot N' Ready pizza every day just to show the players that I think they're taking too much of Mike Ilitch's dough?
When this whole situation is over, both sides are going to stand in front of cameras and tell the whole world how they came to an agreement that they can live with and that they're collectively happy to bring hockey back to "the greatest fans in the world." It's not important that you care about one side more than the other, it's that you care at all, because that's what's going to make you come back.
Keep that in mind the next time Gary Bettman** slithers out of a meeting room and condescends to the press about how things are going. He doesn't care that you hate him; he's actually pretty ok with that. For the most part, the owners are going to lose the PR battle because it's much easier for them to do this time around. I just don't think that it makes a difference to them. Hell, the league's battle cry going into these negotiations may as well be "If they care enough to hate, they'll show up at the gate."
I'd go as far as saying that it's probably most-beneficial to everybody involved that the fans come out of this supporting the players, since they're the actual product that people go to see. Sure, you don't have the product without the supporting dollars of the owners, but that's all kind of the subconscious part of the experience. You might stay away if you think the guy who pays for the upkeep on the building you're in is a greedy jerk, but I'd argue you're more likely to do so if you think the people you're actually paying to see perform are the bad guys.
The REAL danger for the league and for the players comes when people stop clamoring so much for one side or the other to stop being so selfish. One way or another, one side will have to lose more than the other side. As long as the fans care which side is which, they're both winning.