Knox: Hockey fans can't relate to 'greedfest'

Jack Knox Victoria Times Colonist / Kamloops Daily News
January 4, 2013 01:00 AM

The first skater to show up for drop-in hockey isn't even Canadian.

German exchange student Patrick Schiebel was smitten by the game - the skill, the speed - a couple of months ago, but the locked out National Hockey League means nothing to him.

The next two guys on the rec centre ice play, but don't watch the game on TV. One says he grew up with the NHL but drifted away: too many teams, too little excitement. He would like to be turned on as he was by the Gretzky-era Oilers, but it's hard to get worked up about the dulled-down Arkansas Ice Pigs, or whoever, in Gary Bettman's sea of anonymity.

It's only the fourth skater, firefighter Andrew Zado, who really cares that the owners and players have reached their version of the fiscal cliff.

Yet even he is disillusioned. Where the last lock-out, eight years ago, was partly about fixing a broken game, this one is just a greedfest, millionaire players and billionaire owners fighting over a fortune we can't afford to pay. "It's a $1,000 trip for my wife and I to go see a Vancouver Canucks game," Zado says.

If the league, its players, sponsors and advertisers don't hear alarm bells ringing, they're in big, big trouble, says David Kincaid, on the phone from Toronto. Even if the NHL salvages a shortened season, it will be trying to rekindle a love affair with a country that, increasingly, no longer gets aroused by the old Hockey Night In Canada theme music. Yes, the Leafs will still sell out, but the vital I-love-Wendel-Clark-more-than-my-wife connection will be gone.

Kincaid is CEO of Level5 Strategy, which does brand analysis for major corporations, measuring consumers' emotional attachment to products and companies.

Right now, Canadians feel about the hockey brand the way Don Cherry feels about Swedes. Not since the BP oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico has Kincaid been able to quantify such a negative reaction.

An in-depth, coast-to-coast survey conducted a month after the lockout began shows Canadians have increasingly lost touch with the game in general and the NHL in particular. Only a third of us remain passionate about a sport that is supposed to be inseparable from our national identity. One-third are neutral to hockey, its culture, its lifestyle. One third don't care.

What should terrify the league, its sponsors and advertisers is that even the hard-core fans are disaffected, terms such as "bored" and "can't relate" popping to the fore. "The range and depth of the negative emotions ... were somewhat alarming," Kincaid says.

Sponsors and advertisers will be wasting their money if they try to go back to business as usual - slapping ads on the arena boards, running TV commercials - before the damage to the fan base is repaired, Kincaid says. "The consumer has become so disenfranchised."

Yet the league has taken the paying public for granted. "The NHL needs to get off its high horse a little bit and rub shoulders with the fans."

If the league is blind, advertisers aren't. They are wise enough to cleave to those aspects of the game that still trigger positive emotions while disassociating themselves with the bits that reek like the inside of a hockey bag. Zealots/insomniacs tuning into the world junior tournament from Russia might have seen TV spots from Hockey Canada sponsors RBC and Nike that draw a clear line between the game (and country) fans love and the league many now despise.

Hockey doesn't belong to the NHL, the ads remind us. It's our game, not Bettman's.

That's a nice sentiment for a TV commercial. It would be nice to think that it's true.

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