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Clamor on Causeway: An NHL Lockout is the Reality

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, may not be handing anyone the Stanley Cup next June.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, may not be handing anyone the Stanley Cup next June.

Clamor on Causeway is a weekly column that will appear every Sunday night throughout the year. It will address some of the most frequently discussed topics and issues surrounding the Bruins.

National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman took his share of scrutiny last week after telling the world that "we," meaning the owners of the league's 30 franchises, believe players make too much money. Fans tore into Bettman for delivering a disheartening message, but seemed to ignore the fact that, in these negotiations, Bettman is more or less powerless. He serves at the pleasure of the people signing the checks, and it is them, not Bettman, that deserve the bulk of the vitriol.

Bettman's tenure as NHL commissioner has hardly been successful in the sense that the league is facing a third work stoppage in the last 18 years. In this instance, like the others, he's caught between powerful groups, both of whom believe they have leverage. Owners are right to demand smaller contracts in the sense that they live of a world of numbers, where higher is always better. Meanwhile, players are right to demand their share of revenues for playing a game millions of people pay big money to see and support. So the decision, really, is whose version of reality most aligns with the situation fans see for themselves.

Forgive fans, though, if they can't understand either side's espoused reality. Even as owners dole out the cash to field the most competitive teams they can, in most cases, and players work tirelessly to win, it was the fans spending more time and money to see games and support their teams that led to a massive increase in revenue. Don't try to assess this situation by dealing with reality. The owners have no time for that, and it's only more frustrating to approach from a rational place. This has to do with money, which the owners see an opportunity to get more of. Player salaries have increased from their position following the 2003-04 season. However, league revenues have grown by an even greater degree to more than $3.3 billion, compared to $2.1 billion eight years ago.

Save your patronizing decrees that hockey fans are "the world's greatest fans," Mr. Bettman. They didn't come back after the last lockout because they're any better than any other group of fans. They came back because they like hockey, and because hockey is a way to forget about their own versions of reality for a little while. It means a few hours not worrying about paying student loans or buying a home. It means forgetting about a bad job or no job just long enough to celebrate a big win with some friends. Revenues rose because fans enjoy watching hockey, and that won't change no matter the reality they all expect to face on Sept. 15.

Yes, you will all be back when this lockout ends, and the owners know that. It may take longer for some, but the first winning streak or playoff run or emergence of a new star will bring back each fan, because the realities hockey numbs will still be there when either side - it will be the players - yields.

For the Bruins, the lockout comes at an especially difficult time, given the promising development of certain players, as well as the aging of others who really can't afford to lose a full season at this stage in their careers.

The events of April, May and June of 2011 led to an Era of Good Feelings surrounding the franchise and its maligned owners, the Jacobs family. Last year, Bruins fans packed the TD Garden pretty much every night, and it was nice to pretend it had always been that way. However, anyone around long enough to remember the years immediately before and after the last lockout remembers crowds of fewer than 15,000 and the woefully average teams the Bruins passed off as contenders. In Boston, fans came back because the Bruins started to win. The capital the franchise built with consistently strong teams in the last four years may fade with the lockout, but it will return at some point because the Bruins will still be a contender when play resumes.

In markets without contending teams, the process may take longer. Still, fans will return the first time the club gives them a reason to. For many, the fact that it's hockey will be enough of a reason to come back. That isn't the case for most, though, no matter how complementary of fans the commissioner is when he tells them they're screwed.

There will be a lockout, and we will lose a sizable portion of the season.

You'll be back when the players eventually take whatever deal the owners give them. Not all at once, but you will come back. It seems difficult to believe right now, but the owners are banking on it. Just like they did in July 2005, when both of those things became reality.