Another day, another week and still no meaningful negotiations in the ongoing NHL lockout. The threat of the cancellation of the Winter Classic and All-Star Game looms with some even saying that if the NHL is going to cancel the season's biggest regular season game for the league, then what incentive does Gary Bettman have to not just go ahead and cancel the entire season now?
It's becoming clear that the rhetoric, from both sides in this matter, is failing. No one is on one side or the other any longer; instead, the fans are increasingly angry and upset that for the second time in less than a decade the threat of a lost season of hockey is getting more and more realistic. The league has already canceled games through November and even if the NHLPA and NHL come to some magical agreement in the next few weeks, this season is going to have a very dark cloud hanging over it when play resumes.
Fans will cheer the return of hockey, for certain, but I wonder if things will ever quite be the same again.
More importantly, I wonder if the Dallas Stars will ever be the same again.
There is a good amount of discussion regarding the "casual fan" and how this lockout will affect that subgroup of hockey fans, the all-important group that ebbs and flows with the ups and downs of the league and the team. Some may refer to the casual fan as "bandwagon" fans but it is clear just how important they can be to a team; when a team is doing well, these fans flock to the franchise with open wallets and, more effectively, can be convinced to jump ship from the "casual" side of fandom to the hardcore fans that stick with the team through thick ad thin.
The Dallas Stars have a very dedicated and knowledgeable fanbase that has stayed with the franchise through the frustrations of the past four years, through disappointing seasons and an absentee ownership. Unfortunately, this core group of fans has slowly dwindled over the years; more accurately, we could say the core fanbase is the same, it's just the more "casual" of this group have dropped off over the past few years.
The concern regarding the effect of the lockout has little to do with the casual fan and much more to do with these hardcore fans. These are people who have spent hard-earned and valuable income as fans and on this team, through season tickets, merchandise, television packages and more. These fans have made a significant investment in the Dallas Stars and the NHL, not just financially but also emotionally and through the expense of their time.
This investment is made with the promise from the team that at some point in the future it will be paid off by having a winning team on the ice or at the very least a franchise that actually shows an interest and desire in improvement. There are no promises in sports but fans want to see their investment being put to actual progress or the desire for progress; the stagnation of the Dallas Stars under the banks and at the end of Tom Hicks' ownership drove many fans away since it was their belief that their investment was no longer worth the financial or emotional cost.
After all, if the team isn't even going to be making the investment to improve and win then why should the fans?
This brings us to the current lockout and the effect it will have on a fanbase that was already on shaky ground. It is clear that fans are taking this lockout as a personal insult, that the league -- and to some extent the players -- have taken the fans for granted and instead of working together to build the game and improve the league moving forward, the battle has become more about "winning" and egos and who will come out on top.
This sort of approach, coupled with the fact that the league has apparently never been more healthy overall and that revenues have soared to a record high in the midst of a recession, has created an increasing sense of anger that has morphed into apathy regarding the NHL. Fans know just how many actual jobs have been affected by what is obviously a needless work stoppage, with hundreds of workers laid off or facing reduced wages or thousands of others are directly affected by the lack of games. People who don't make millions of dollars a year have lost incredibly important income, a fact that only adds to the sense of anger and exasperation when it comes to the fact that neither side has yet to participate in actual meaningful negotiations.
This leads to an erosion of the core fanbase that is already well underway. We've heard from several long-time season ticket holders who say that even if hockey returns next week, they will no longer be making the annual investment in the future. The NHL has stated that the fans returned en masse following the last lockout and will do so again, but with each passing week without a new deal it's becoming clear that this notion is far from realistic.
When Tom Gaglardi purchased the Dallas Stars in November of 2011, he purchased a franchise where the hardcore fanbase is all that remained of what once existed. The "casual" fan had moved on, to the Texas Rangers or Dallas Mavericks, and the team would have to make big strides in winning those fans over once more. The core group was still there, just as they always had been, and now the team was faced with the task of building upon that once more and hopefully creating a legion of fans similar to what existed just five or seven years ago.
The problem, as we all know, is that the Stars were stuck in a rebuilding mode. Ownership issues prevented the Stars from ever truly being able to move forward and build upon what existed on the ice and the team was left with a decent but wholly mediocre team. Because of this, the window passed on the core group of players that were in place and the team was obviously in need of a rebuild from the ground up.
Rebuilding usually means more losing, and that was something the Stars could not afford. So the team set off on a mission to "reset" the franchise for the future while also building a team that could be competitive in the short term. The Stars made a series of highly aggressive moves over the summer, specifically for the 2012-13 season, with the desire to show the core fanbase that their investment was noted and that the team does understand the importance of improvement and winning. This would also put a product on the ice that could be sold back to the "casual fan," to put a winning product on the ice that could be used to sell the sport and the team once again so that these casual fans would be added to the extremely valuable hardcore fanbase.
Which is why it's inconceivable to consider that Tom Gaglardi and the Dallas Stars are in the group of "hardline" owners that seek to force steep salary cuts on the players and that anything less would be unacceptable.
Elliotte Friedman of CBC Sports has stated a few times that Gaglardi is part of this group, and reiterated that in a very intriguing article earlier this week:
The commish has three groups of owners: the ones who want to play; the ones in the middle, including Tampa and Nashville, who want a better collective bargaining agreement but recognize not playing is worse; and the hardliners. It would be a mistake to underestimate the last group. There are several who would rather cancel the season than accept a bad deal because they are hemorrhaging money and need immediate satisfaction.
While the players believe Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs is calling the shots, an educated guess at the final group includes but may not be limited to Anaheim, Columbus, Florida, the Islanders, Phoenix, St. Louis, Washington and Dallas -- enough to block any agreement from getting done (It's tough to lock it down because owners are forbidden to discuss this stuff. Attempts to talk to a couple were politely shot down).
Now, to be fair, Friedman states this merely as an "educated guess" as to which owners are among the hardliners blocking a potential compromise. While it's just an assumption, it is one that does not add up when you consider the scope of the moves by the Stars in the offseason and the state of this franchise heading into what was going to be a crucial 2012-13 season.
From the start it's been a firm belief of mine that the Stars were on the short list of teams that absolutely could not afford any sort of work stoppage, that a delay to the season -- and if we were so unlucky a canceled season -- would have a detrimental affect on the franchise. I wrote last week that the league and the players were tempting fate by assuming that hockey would be the same again after a lengthy lockout; that concern is only magnified when applied to the Dallas Stars.
This is something the ownership of the Stars must understand and it's something that is more than obvious considering the moves made during the offseason. The Dallas Stars could have very easily jumped into the deep end of a rebuild and "youth movement," acknowledging that the 2012-13 season is effectively lost (on the ice at least) and made moves to ensure the future of the team in 2013 and beyond.
While this approach may have been effective in rebuilding the roster and the team, the chance of continued mediocrity -- or worse, an even more disappointing team -- was too much of a risk for a franchise doing its absolute best to repair the damage of the past five years.
The Dallas Stars traded Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott for a prospect and a center under contract for just one season. The team signed veteran Ray Whitney and the legendary Jaromir Jagr, moves made to improve the team in the short term and to specifically help the Stars become playoff contenders for this very season. The roster may look drastically different again in 2013-14, but the Stars were aggressive in ensuring the transition under the rebuild would not mean the team was abandoning it's quest for the postseason.
This is not the approach of a team preparing for a lockout and certainly not the approach of an owner who would belong to a group that feels that a canceled 2012-13 season is better than actually playing. This was the approach of a team that understood the investments made by the fans and wanted to pay that back, to repair those torn relationships with the loyal fans and to forge new ones with new fans moving forward.
The Dallas Stars don't sign Jaromir Jagr to a one-year contract and then take the stance that they'd rather lose the season than play with him on the ice.
Which is why this lockout has been so painful for Stars fans to endure. This was the season we were supposed to see a hockey legend take the ice in a Stars sweater, when the team was supposed to make a significant leap forward with several of the young players that are a part of the future while continuing to develop budding superstars Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson. This was the season Benn was supposed to learn from players like Whitney and Jagr on how to be the leader on the team and the example for his teammates. This was supposed to be a new beginning after four long years of stagnation.
Instead, those hardcore fans that have stuck with the team for so long are now jumping ship. They'll still be fans of the team but those investments that were made, the ones that franchises like the Stars need, will certainly go away. The task of rebuilding the fanbase has now become increasingly difficult as trust between the fans and the league has withered away until absolutely none remain.
The fans are personally insulted by this lockout, as they should be, and it could have dire consequences on the Dallas Stars.
Tom Gaglardi and the Stars know this. The team is not ready or willing to push for a canceled season. No employees have been laid off, no drastic salary cuts have been made. Gaglardi and the Stars, more than any other team, understand the value of actually getting on the ice this season has for the health of this franchise. If this entire season is lost, the Dallas Stars might as well approach the 2013-14 season as an expansion team would.
The Dallas Stars, if they haven't already, would have fallen completely off the sports radar in Dallas.
The hardcore fanbase would be a fraction of what it once was. The casual fans would have to be re-sold the game all over again and while it might not be exactly like it was in 1993, the Stars would certainly have a much steeper hill to climb when it comes to building this franchise back into what is once was and has the potential to be.
In fact, we might already be closer to that situation with the lockout than we realize.
It's a shame that the players and the owners are so close and yet so far away, that personal biases and egos are getting in the way of progress. If the league cannot see just what sort of detrimental effect this lockout is having on the fans -- and if the players refuse to acknowledge this as well -- then the overall health of this league is in grave danger.
So, we wait. To see if the two sides can find some sense amongst themselves. To see if a fractured ownership group could change things. To see if the league can find a way to actually salvage this season before irrevocable harm is inflicted not only on the league as a whole, but on teams caught in the crossfire than can ill-afford what a lost season would mean for their futures.
We wait. We hope. But we will eventually move on.