Picture this – a Saturday night in a very loud rink. A very physical game between two teams that do not like each other. Both goalies are playing well and keeping it close. The home crowd are very vocal – beer is flowing and the mood is good this weekend. The visiting team is stacked with a bigger payroll, and should, on paper, be dominating. But the home team is amped by the crowd and the challenge at hand. The home side enjoys the under-dog status, and are battling hammer and tongs. The hockey is very good.
Now tell me, where is this, what hockey city, what barn, what teams are putting on a fantastic show on this October hockey night? Is it Montreal? Is it Toronto, maybe even Calgary? No, no and no. It’s Cardiff Bay on a Saturday night in Wales, at a barn affectionately nicknamed the ‘Big Blue Tent.’ It’s called that by the local ‘Red Army’ who support the Cardiff Devils, because in essence it actually is a big blue tent!
The much hated Sheffield Steelers are in town, a team that has much bigger names in their line-up, and plays its home games in a ‘real’ arena. The Steelers should win this game, so say the UK Elite League experts, but that’s not the script the Devils follow on this cold night in October. The home team wins – and the beer continues to flow at the tent.
What a night, what a hockey experience for any Canadian who visits Cardiff Bay. No NHL lockout talk, no millionaire versus billionaire analogies. Just two hockey teams looking for two points, cheered on by a very knowledgeable fan base in this Welsh city. There were even Sheffield fans on hand, who had made the long journey by bus. The atmosphere incredible.
Hockey is played in some strange corners – no doubt. But on this night, I realize that the NHL is one of the most out of touch entities on planet earth.
The NHL believes itself to be the only game in town for hockey fans everywhere. Wrong. I spoke with many people in Cardiff who ‘were’ (past tense) NHL fans. Some said on this night that they will never buy another piece of NHL merchandise on-line again. A few said that they will drop their NHL GameCenter web package. Others said they couldn’t care less about a league that has become a joke, with its third work stoppage in 20 years. One of the more vocal fans I spoke with stated that as long as Gary Bettman was Commissioner, then his interest was lost. Thus proving that Gary is not just detested in North America – he has alienated and annoyed people as far away as Wales. Well done.
One couple even told me that they try and take a sports trip a year, usually around an NHL game somewhere in North America. That won’t happen again they informed me. Their entertainment money allocated on other sporting endeavours from now on.
So what does it all mean? The NHL is hoping that fans will come back if and when this lockout ends. They are wrong I believe. The die-hards will come back, always do. But the casual fans, the fans who maybe only watch NHL on-line, or buy a hat or a jersey on websites here in Europe, they are going to spend cash on ‘real’ leagues, leagues that actually play games. They will not be venturing to New York or Toronto this winter to spend their Euros on a Ranger or Leafs game, or pay to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. The casual fans, and their smaller portion of the NHL’s revenue stream may be gone for good.
Gary Bettman and the billionaire bozo club – also known as the NHL team ownership – don’t care about those fans. That’s too bad – because in my eight years in Europe I have met plenty of NHL fans in Ireland, England, and even in hot sunny Spain. They are people that do pay for viewing packages, and do buy plenty of NHL merchandise. Now they are fed up. Now they are taking their cash elsewhere. They watch the UK Elite League, they buy Cardiff Devils and Belfast Giants shirts, they watch the KHL, they get their hockey fix, and sports entertainment elsewhere.
Bettman and the bozos haven’t thought about that. They haven’t thought about the fans outside of Canada and the USA, who contribute to their booming business and bottom line. Like many an over-inflated, egotistical business before them, they haven’t thought about the big picture.
And, like many an egotistical business group, the league and teams are going to regret this short-sightedness for a long time. Because hockey plays on, it plays on in some strange places, and it doesn’t need the NHL to keep hockey fans on the edge of their seats. And, on a cold October night in Wales, for 60 minutes of exciting hockey action, even I didn’t miss the NHL.
You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce