As in the past, there has been tremendous and very respectful discussion, including with regard to the controversial decision by MLSE's new owners to fire Brian Burke. That kind of thoughtful dialogue where we try to respect one another's views is hopefully the hallmark and standard we have established here since September of 2009 when I launched Vintage Leaf Memories.
One additional note to yesterday's piece: as I have said here many times, my comments regarding the Burke decision to trade for Kessel in Burke's first year here have to do with my view that Burke's error was not necessarily in wanting to trade for a young, emerging star in the making. Rather, it was that he so mis-read his team, and thought they would finish much higher than they did in the standings. When that did not happen, we all know the result (Seguin and Hamilton in Boston).
Those who follow VLM know that my views have always been clear on that.
Those brave individuals who followed VLM during the dark days of a prolonged lockout heard me opine on a number of lockout-related subjects over the past few months. They will know that there is one thing I said many times: the NHL—and its players—do not “owe” us, the fans, hockey. The NHL owners have the right to run the business as they see fit. They make the investment. It is huge and it is risky in many ways, especially (obviously) in certain markets.
They can shut the game down if they want, because it is their league. And in locking out the players, they did just that.
In the same breath, the players can strike, or they can sit out while fighting for every last dollar they can garner in a new contract agreement. Which is precisely what they did once again in the most recent lockout.
The owners and the players are uneasy partners, and they “run” the NHL. It’s their league. We are largely anonymous bystanders, entertained by the players that we pay to help them (and the owners) make their millions. But they do not owe us.
All that said the lockout did not enamor the players or owners to most of us. Many of us remain quietly angered, jilted somewhat because the other two parties in this three-way “relationship” broke what we feel, fair or not, is a sacred trust, a kind of unspoken agreement between us—at least in sporting terms. So we remain, in many cases, left feeling happy that the game we love is back, but also uncomfortable with what has transpired.
Will fans return? I sense most will, certainly in Canada. Some will stay away forever, sure, and understandably so. Some will return right away but on principle will not purchase NHL merchandize. Still others will boycott initially, but when their team runs the table on a nice winning streak, they may find themselves casually glancing at the sports ticker—and ultimately coming back to watch or attend the games.
I’ve said that the league and the players (some of whom obviously aren’t listening) should avoid empty apologies and hollow gestures. The players claim this whole fiasco was not their fault, though the greed was highly apparent on both sides of this simmering dispute. The league tried to say “thank you” last time, but similar attempts to say “we’re sorry” or “thank you” (which Bettman tried this week) won't likely be warmly received.
In my mind, anything the league does to try to “win back” fans should not be a one-time thing, or short-term only. If they are serious about doing something for fans, they should do it across the board, in all markets, to varying degrees.
I’m no marketing specialist and certainly not a promoter, but my view is there are some specific things the league could do that is more than “talk”. In our own backyard, where the Leafs will always be the biggest game in town for many of us, there are some concrete actions that the Leafs (or the Leafs, in conjunction with the League) could initiate locally and that could be replicated in other markets where applicable: (side note: I don’t doubt some of these “ideas” have already been expressed elsewhere!)
- Fans love watching hockey on television. Offer the NHL Center Ice package for free for the remainder of the 2012-’13 regular season. If that is not possible, offer Leafs TV free for six months.
- Offer the Center Ice package free for the first month of the regular season for the next five seasons. (Same with Leafs TV.)
- The Maple Leafs could create those big old-school team calendars—you know, with the classic team picture on the front, schedules, photos, and things that appeal to fans throughout. Sprinkle in some special autographs every few hundred calendars. Distribute these calendars for free at home games to all kids 15 and younger and also make sure the calendars are distributed to hospitals, schools and through Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Hopefully more than crass promotion, it would be given as a memento to thousands and thousands of kids (in Toronto’s case, across the GTA and the province). If a kid mails in and asks for a calendar, ship it for free.
- Going forward, one game a season should be not for season-ticket holders. Instead, the gates should be open to a lottery system for that one game, with a focus on getting kids (especially needy kids, who would likely otherwise never get to a Leaf game—I’ve posted on this concept before) to the games. What I’d like to see here is ensuring that adults, families and underprivileged kids who can’t afford tickets most of the time could get to a Leaf game. I’m sure season-ticket holders would survive 1 game out of 41 not being at the ACC. MLSE should pick up the tab. (Season-ticket holders could still sit in the lounge at the ACC.) Can you imagine the noise at the ACC on a night like this, with “real” fans in the building—every corner of the building?
- Special Leaf team practices should be open to the public free of charge once a month, with free soft drinks and snacks for all.
- Free autograph days should be held once a month at the ACC or at the Leaf Lakeshore practice facility. The Leafs could rotate a set of four players, say, at every “event” after a practice, and these guys would sign until the last youngster has had a chance for at least one autograph.
- Free draws could be held for free season tickets annually.
- Schedule regular “shinny” games at the ACC against Leaf players on off days with selected fans (again, a lottery system could be used).
- Do the Willy Wonka thing. Create a special Maple Leaf candy bar. Sell it inexpensively as a charity fund-raiser, but as in the Willy Wonka story, give a big cash prize out to those handful of fans who happen to buy the candy bar with the “golden ticket”.
- Your choice! You fill in what you think would be a neat idea...
There are plenty of ideas better than what I’ve cobbled together above, and by all means share your thoughts.
Again, I’m not suggesting these are great or terribly creative concepts. But if teams, including the Leafs, adopted some of these ideas and continued to run with them as regular “programs” for years to come, it might help re-establish a trust that has been lost.