By Bill Vandermark, Staff Writer
Please note that the opinions expressed in this letter belong solely to the author, though they are probably echoed in part or whole by any self-respecting fan of hockey.
Dear Commissioner Bettman:
I’ve been a fan of the NHL since the 1988-1989 season. I’ve attended games in person since the 1995-1996 season. I became a season ticket holder in 2006 and I’ve had them ever since. In that time span I’ve watched the ups and downs of the game. I’ve watched Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky do things on ice that most people couldn’t do standing still. I’ve seen the Stanley Cup awarded 23 times over that span, once in person (and yes, Commissioner, I booed you). I’ve scheduled major events in and around team schedules. I’ve left events early or shown up late because of hockey. I’ve grown to love the game and recruited my wife, my in-laws, and now all three of my children to love the game.
In July I moved residences. In the past, I’ve always hung my NHL themed artwork up before I even set the couches straight. This time, I decided to hold off until September. My season tickets came in the mail and the NHL schedules were posted. Instead of taking a night and synching my calendars, I opted to wait. See, Mr. Bettman, I’ve already lived through two of your player lockouts and I had a feeling that this was to be more of the same.
So on September 16 when everything was formally announced as a lockout, I sat down and thought long and hard about my relationship with the NHL. I looked back on the good times, the bad times, the cup years, the years where attendance was so lean I could buy a single ticket and have the whole section to myself. I remember the hollow promises of the 2004-2005 season; lower ticket prices, cost certainty for the league, a salary cap to prevent GMs and Owners from spending themselves broke. I call them hollow because none of them came to pass as predicted.
Through all of this thinking, I also did some cleaning. I replaced my Penguins mug with a generic Star Wars mug at work. I took down all of the hockey related items in my cube and put them in a drawer. I stopped wearing all NHL merchandise (and with jerseys numbering double digits, t-shirts by the drawer full, and enough hats to wear a different one each day for several months, you can imagine the hit to the wardrobe), I certainly stopped buying anything related to the NHL (even as Christmas gifts), and I quit seeking out hockey related news. I also gave a lot of consideration to dropping my season ticket package as a sign of protest.
As the lockout grew from 30 to 60 days, so did my irritation that two sides who supposedly loved the game couldn’t come to an agreement that suited everyone. When it went from 60 days to 90 days and the Winter Classic was taken off the slate without a second thought, I realized that I was beyond mad. I had entered the zone of not caring. And that is a dangerous place to put a hockey fan. At this point, I had begun filling my time with other pursuits. Pursuits that were ultimately cheaper and more fulfilling than anything I was getting from the media about hockey.
When a decision was finally reached after 113 days, I had dozens of friends, family, coworkers, and social media contacts ask me if I was glad. My only answer was; I’m ambivalent. So Commissioner Bettman, you took a loyal fan who spends a large amount of his discretionary income on the game of hockey and made him look long and hard about how he should spend his time and money. And just when I was slowly warming up to the idea of coming back to the NHL, you insult my intelligence by taking out a full page ad “apologizing” for the lockout.
In speaking to some casual fans about the number of giveaways, I knew that they weren’t to lure fans back, but because the teams had them already on order for a full season and it only seemed like a benefit to give them all away in the span of the 24 home games this year. The same goes for the reduced merchandise being offered by clubs. The vendors have numbers they have to make and they have to sell a season’s worth of merchandise in roughly 100 days to a fan base that isn’t knocking down the gates to get in just yet.
So Commissioner Bettman as hollow a gesture as it might be, here is my lockout. I’ve passed on my tickets for the first two home games to a younger fan less jaded than I. I’ll miss the home opener for the first time in well over a decade (not including your last lockout). I’m also keeping up my ban on wearing or buying any NHL related merchandise for a period of no less than 113 days.
Yes, I ultimately kept my season tickets. And yes, I will be back to follow the game I love, but it will not be because of your PR-spun “apology” and it certainly won’t be because you’re painting yourself as the savior of the season for ending the lockout that you started in the first place. I’ll be back because at the end of the day, I love the game and all that it used to stand for before your reign began.
And one day, Mr. Bettman, you will no longer be the commissioner of the NHL and that day, well that day will truly end the lockout on hockey.
A hockey (and sometimes NHL) fan.