Living With The Lockout (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The AHL)
"When football isn't around, I'm forced to deal with larger, knottier life questions than who's in my fantasy line-up. I'd just prefer not."
-Michael Tunison (aka Christmas Ape) from Kissing Suzy Kolber on the eve of the 2011 NFL lockout.
Think back to 2004. How about February of 2005. Does that ring any bells? What were you doing? How did you react when Gary Bettman leaned uncomfortably on that podium, offered an apology, and broke the news? The NHL season was cancelled. Anger. Frustration. Annoyance. Rage. Gradual indifference. Impassive. Confusion.
Confusion? Yeah, confusion. If frustration and dislike are common reactions to a lack of knowledge on a subject, then confusion fits. How else can you explain the swirl of emotions? The NHL is fine, nothing can stop us now, and then it's gone. Not by any choice of your own, but just taken away. You did nothing wrong, why should you be punished? You see other hockey fans, and we see you too, and all you can do is nod. What do you say? "Boy, that lockout sure sucks, right?" Yeah, it sucks, we know.
Then it came back. It didn't quite look the same, and the players weren't in the same places, but the sport was familiar and those memories didn't seem too distant. The NHL was back, and for the next seven years the League saw a great accumulation of wealth. The NHL, for all of the documented evidence and jokes about its lack of exposure, is the window through which most North American hockey fans view the sport. It's our favorite version of the sport -- maybe only the Olympics can compete with it for two weeks every four years. Unlike the Olympics, the NHL season is annual, and can last a good eight months if you are really lucky.
Hockey writers will tell a tale of a lockout in terms of the loss of revenue, the loss of exposure, and the loss of fans and its impact on the highest level of North American hockey. There are professionals who do it with much more eloquence than us here at JFtC (SB Nation United™!), and that is no fault of our own. There are so many emotions that go into the sudden realization that basic human compassion stands in the way of you and your favorite form of entertainment. It's so complicated, yet so petty. So difficult to comprehend, yet so trivial all the same. There are sides, and individuals that populate these sides. These sides do not agree. These sides were never designed to agree. It becomes overwhelming. You pick a side, but you are ultimately on your own side, and no one and everyone feels exactly how you do at the same time.
Everyone because hockey fans exist around the globe, and you can take solace in the fact that you are not alone. You can complain, no matter how flamboyantly, and someone will agree. You can tweet #LetThemPlay, and you will get retweeted. We, as the ever-powerful fan, feel we can influence change in the sport, that if enough of us get together and sing "Kumbaya" then Shanahan will ban a goon for life, or Bettman will disappear, or Parise will go to the Rangers.
No one because no one knows the sport like you do, and no one has experienced what you have. Niesy's post a few months ago asking for your Kings origin story was great if only because so many of you used it as a thinking exercise. Many of you answered not only why you cheer for the Kings, but tried to rationalize how you even ended up following this sport. Beautiful, organic thought came from that post because we chose to follow a certain sport and a certain team. We aren't born with a love of sports, we don't need sports, but through some twisted genetic mutation and years of evolution, we have developed this misguided need to love something intangible and have it love us back. You are the sport's Prince Charming (or Princess Buttercup, Xena the Warrior Princess, etc.). You have to save the sport from those that just don't get it like you do. Your fantasy is to have everyone love the sport as much as you, where all the sides come together and agree on what you want. In reality, they already do. Players want to play, owners want to make more money, the commissioner wants to not deal with this every six years, and you just want an escape.
We don't know what Donald Fehr or Gary Bettman or Ed Snider or whoever really think or feel. You see them as a side, as someone who is so simple in their complexity. Like a Buddhist monk giving profound wisdom, we don't know what they are going to say, but we know how they are going to say it. But, we also choose to ignore that isn't necessarily true. We want to hate them for being superficial characterizations of a movie villain. As if they sit around in a bank all day like Mr. Potter counting their money and making life tough for us George Baileys of the world. It makes things so much easier. It's easy to hate what you don't understand.
We know we don't like what we see or hear this time around. It exasperates us. A lack of positive information fails to satisfy our craving for hockey. Like a dog that performs a trick, we did our part, now where is our treat. Just a few months ago all 17,000 of us could scream for our team in any given city on any given night and that is all that mattered. Then the arenas emptied and we lost influence, even though we never had any real power from the beginning. No one does – not Bettman, not Fehr, not Snider, not Kevin Westgarth – and that just doesn't make any damn sense.
Lockout or not, if 2004-05 taught us anything, it's that the sport is bigger than this incident. It's bigger than labor unions. It's bigger than a multi-billionaire with his own private island with a petting zoo and giant hummer-limo-747 with surround sound. It's bigger than Philip Anschutz's Scrooge McDuck-like silo of money that would put the inhabitants of Babel to shame. It's bigger than the captain of the Stanley Cup champions, a mere vessel used to display the sport and all it has to offer to other human beings. It's bigger than the NHL. It's bigger than you. But you need it more than any one else. Why? Because you aren't two-dimensional. You are more complex than that, and hockey gets you, man.
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On October 12th the Los Angeles Kings are supposed to raise a championship banner to the roof of the Staples Center for the first time ever in Los Angeles sports history, the Kings first and only championship banner in their forty-plus year existence. As a Kings fan of forty years or forty minutes, you chose this team because it represented your personality in some way. Maybe you are a winner. If so, welcome aboard, you must be new. Maybe you are an underdog. Congratulations, you just reached that moment in life where you finally overcame the odds. Or perhaps you are a fighter. You have stuck with this team through some lean times, some recent, maybe some not so recent. Your loyalty has been rewarded. You don't need a banner to tell you that.