Friday, October 26, 2012

Four burning questions, Part I

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

Searching for different ways to approach the issue of the current lockout, the brain trust at the Phanatic decided to canvas fellow colleagues for their thoughts on how the labor battles of 1994-95, 2004-05 and now 2012 have colored their perspective on the game of hockey from their time as fans to their status as credentialed professionals.

Joining us for the next four Fridays will be Dan DiSciullo, hockey editor at The Sports Network, Josh Janet from gcobb.com, and Matt Brigidi from The Checking Line and SB Nation.

Issue #1: At what age did you first experience your first NHL lockout and how big of a Flyers/NHL fan were you at the time? How has this experience changed your view of the sport or your love of the game?

DiSciullo: My first real memories of an NHL lockout are from 1994 when I was 17 years old and a senior in high school.  My hockey/Flyers fandom solidified in the years between those two labor stoppages and it had a lot to do with the arrival of Eric Lindros in Philadelphia. Don't get me wrong, I had always been a Flyers fan and grew up watching them on TV but the buzz surrounding Lindros and the Flyers in the early 1990s definitely made hockey a bigger part of my life.

In the years leading up to the 1994 lockout, I had joined a fantasy hockey league and that led to me thinking about the game in a more critical way. Every morning I'd rush into the kitchen to pick up the sports section and find out how my players fared the night before. Of course, that daily routine was interrupted by the labor strife that ultimately led to the cancellation of nearly half the season, a fact that probably annoyed me more than anything else. I don't recall taking a side in the labor battle or showing any interest in understanding the actual issues that the players and owners were fighting over.  Back then the lockout was just a nuisance that stopped me from enjoying a hobby, nothing more nothing less.

My perception of the NHL's work stoppages have changed dramatically over the years. Now it's part of my job to understand the labor issues that owners and players are fighting over, but I can't pretend that delving into those points of contention hasn't made more cynical about the NHL and sports in general. Perhaps it was the distraction of finishing high school and choosing a college that allowed me turn a blind eye to the greed back in 1994, but I've been forced to look that selfishness in the face during the last two NHL lockouts.

I guess what bothers me most now is how both the owners and players take for granted the loyalty of most hockey fans. How else could they go down this road again after wiping out an entire season only a few years ago? They know most hockey fans will eventually forgive the NHL for its transgressions and continue to support the league whenever it returns. Although the my thinking about the NHL has become more jaded as I've grown to realize that labor strife is a part of the game, I'm not cynical enough to pretend that I won't be right there with them when this lockout finally ends.

Janet: I did not begin following the NHL until the 2007-08 season, when a college friend introduced me to the Philadelphia Flyers. As a result, I don’t have any personal perspective on the previous lockouts. 

As an adult fan, the labor negotiations preventing the 2012-13 NHL season from taking place as usual are “annoying,” but they haven’t done anything to prevent my growing love for the game. I just started playing hockey for the first time in my life; no NHL means no conflicts with my weekly game schedule.

Brigidi: I was 16 during the last lockout and I was a dedicated fan of the NHL. Can't say that I followed the game the same way I do today, but I watched the sport and attended several games a year. I can't recall exactly what my feelings towards the lockout were, but I assume they weren't positive. There is no way that I fully understood what was going on. 

While it's unfortunate that the NHL and NHL Players' Association have failed to maintain consistent labor peace, I appreciate that this is their livelihood. Both sides want to earn as much money as they can. While it's a sizeable pool of money, it's a complicated situation that impacts a huge group of people. I believe the "billionaires vs. millionaires" tag line is an oversimplification of a negotiation that impacts individuals earning salaries across the spectrum, with career lengths ranging from a few months to many years. 

Moreso to that point, what is going on now impacts more than just current owners and players; it impacts the future of the NHL, which in turn impacts employees and consumers outside of the NHL and NHLPA. It's about solving the economic issues surrounding the game and potentially figuring out ways to strengthen the sport's viability in North America. 

In short, I believe the lockouts I have experiences have changed my view of the NHL in opening my eyes to the flaws of the business model as a whole. There are several problems with the way the NHL has been conducting business and it has become evident that it needs to find a more stable model under which to operate.

Herpen: I was a junior in high school, 16-17 years old, the first time the NHL decided to lock horns with the players. I was firmly in the players' corner at the time, since salaries league-wide hadn't approached the bloated masses found in baseball, football and basketball, so the owners' attempt to impose a salary cap seemed ridiculous. I was proven wrong about that not too much longer afterwards, but I did have allegiance to Ed Snider and what he built with the Flyers and how he was portrayed as a "dove" amongst the owners and called for an end to the lockout for the sake of the league.

I was a hopeless Flyers fan for over 10 years at that point, but despairing over the five straight years out of the playoffs plus the loss of half a season. Needless to say, the fires of my fandom were re-stoked and my interest in the Orange and Black peaked anew when they went on that memorable run once the NHL came back that January.

But things changed drastically in the 7 1/2 years between the first and second lockouts. I started to make my way through this business, from broadcasting college hockey at BC to the real world: going from high school, to covering the ECHL, AHL and then the NHL, shifting from broadcasting to writing, and traveling to small towns in the U.S. and Canada to see how the game was held in regard. I started to see more of how the nature of the "game" of hockey doesn't change, but the gap between that and the business of the NHL has become greater and a longer chasm to bridge. This third time may be one that ends up forcing me out of the biz altogether, since it might alter my ability to like the game and cover the sport for the worse. It is difficult for me to justify paying for a game in Philadelphia.

Ultimately, one thing hasn't changed for me: despite my love of the sport and all the experience I've gained following it, if it goes away, I can find other things to do. The first lockout, I ended up getting the best grades of my high school career without the added distraction. The second time, I was able to be more active socially, watched more basketball and football, and ended up doing some travelling and covering minor-league games. This time around, I'll pretty much do the same while filtering out the constant noise of non-update updates on social media.
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