Penguins hold special place in NHL, plus other lockout lessons

Reportedly, the prevailing thought among NHL players, owners and media members is that the lockout is close to its end. Not to be premature, but I’d like to start the funeral service for this work stoppage with some thoughts I’ve had as this protracted process has played itself out:

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Most Penguins fans don’t need to be reminded, but the franchise’s standing in the league is at an all-time high. Yes, this position starts with Sidney Crosby, the sport’s premier performer and increasingly a willing representative of his team, the city of Pittsburgh and hockey players around the world. But while the 2005 draft lottery will always be a transformation moment for the Penguins, what the organization has done since then involves more skill than serendipity.

September 13, 2012; New York, NY, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during a press conference at the Crowne Plaza Times Square. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This prized position in the NHL was exemplified by Crosby and team co-owner Ron Burkle partaking in last week’s breakthrough negotiations. Although talks broke off contentiously, the presence of Burkle was described as a moderating force in discussions that had previously been more polarizing than productive. The California billionaire reprised the pivotal role he played in the difficult process that secured government funding for the construction of CONSOL Energy Center.

Quite simply, the Penguins’ success is the NHL’s success. Pittsburgh’s team is the epitome of the hope the league sells, especially when a spectacular new facility is part of the revenue-generating equation. Whenever the NHL gets the season going, the Pens will once again be Stanley Cup favorites, boasting the best local television ratings in the league, a highly-activated fan base and a successful business plan.

No wonder the NHL welcomed the Penguins’ presence at the bargaining table.

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Last Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman accused players’ union chief Donald Fehr of toying with fans’ emotions with his declaration that the two warring sides were “close” to an agreement. I’m undecided on the veracity of that claim, but I will complain about another entity that can’t seem to maintain a dispassionate approach: the media.

Of course our favorite hockey reporters would rather be covering power plays on the ice instead of in the boardroom, but I’ve been shocked how much professional journalists have been unable to keep their emotions in check. The reactions I’ve seen have been truly bipolar, from unwarranted enthusiasm about CBA proposals to out-of-proportion pessimism regarding the aftereffects of the lockout.

A recent radio appearance by Boston Bruins’ TV play-by-play man Jack Edwards illustrated this. While on the air with 105.9 FM’s Mark Madden on Wednesday afternoon, Edwards sounded like a third-grader who just discovered Santa Claus doesn’t exist. I actually felt bad for this sportscasting veteran, mainly for his lack of perspective. Work stoppages come and go in modern pro sports, whether you can justify them or not.

March 7, 2012; Pittsburgh,PA, USA: A statue of Pittsburgh Penguins former center Mario Lemieux is dedicated in the afternoon before the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Will there be collateral damage to the NHL brand because of the lockout? Probably. But I need only hearken back to last year to recall how the NBA, despite a heavily-criticized labor dispute that cancelled months of games, capped its most popular season ever. Fans move on when they have something to cheer for again.

Bottom line: be a pro. Cover the latest developments and try to keep your emotion out of it. Getting carried away in either direction doesn’t serve the consumer.

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Let’s stick with the basketball comparison a bit longer. Although their fan bases, players and personnel couldn’t be more different in a myriad of ways, the NHL and NBA are more similar than different.

Both leagues are effectively young, as each gained nationwide legitimacy in the 1970s and ’80s, well after baseball and football stamped their imprints on American popular culture. Both leagues have been criticized for being homogeneous from a racial standpoint. Both leagues compete for the same months on the calendar.

Both leagues also have their devoted fans that will seemingly never go away. Despite public proclamations to the contrary, a work stoppage will not kill these sports. Yes, the NBA and NHL could theoretically alienate their followers beyond the point of no return, but the customers are hooked on the product at this point.

Hockey and basketball at the highest levels will endure, even with the periodical threat of a work stoppage.

Topics: Media, NHL, NHL Lockout, Pittsburgh Penguins

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