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July 24, 2005 - NHL owners' tarnished image could sell tickets

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NHL owners' tarnished image could sell tickets

Gwen Knapp

Sunday, July 24, 2005

 

 


 

Wayne Primeau politely answered a sad "What I Did on My Unwanted Vacation" question. Short version: The Sharks' center made the best of the NHL lockout.

He went to Disneyland with his wife, Leanne, and two children, Mason, who will turn 4 in a week, and 19-month-old Madison. They took trips to Napa and Hawaii with the family of teammate Patrick Marleau. He took Mason to his swimming lessons and preschool, and he skated twice a week to stay in shape.

"I missed playing, but at least I got to spend some time with my family and do things I'd never done with them before," Primeau said.

He and brother Keith, a Philadelphia Flyer, held a charity game near their Ontario, Canada, hometown, raising money for minor-league hockey and a spinal-care research group called Shoot for a Cure. His savings, combined with stipends from the Players' Association, allowed him to forgo looking for hockey jobs overseas, as many of his colleagues did.

Asked his feelings about the ordeal, the first time an entire sports season had ever been eliminated by labor trouble, Primeau didn't whine or attack. He simply said that he wished everyone had talked things out further in advance, but he didn't attack his union for being imprudent, even though, in the contract approved Thursday, it ultimately relented on the sticking point of a salary cap.

"I'm sure there are some owners who aren't happy with it, either," he said.

This is the attitude that will have to prevail for the NHL, particularly the players, to reclaim fans. For years now, hockey has connected with its audiences on a much more personal basis than the three big team sports, baseball, football and basketball. Even as it expanded, becoming a Sun Belt phenomenon on ice, the game remained heavily dependent on local support. In some ways, that led to this contract showdown, because the NHL didn't become glamorous enough to hold onto the great financial enabler for sports leagues, a broad national TV audience.

Still, Jeremy Roenick managed to make national news last month, damaging all of his co-workers with a juvenile rant about fans who criticized the players for refusing to fold.

"Everybody out there who calls us spoiled because we play a game, they can kiss my a -- ," he said. "I will say personally, to everybody who calls us spoiled, you guys are just jealous. We're trying to get this thing back on the ice and make it better for the fans. If you don't realize that, then don't come. We don't want you in the rink, we don't want you in the stadium, we don't want you to watch hockey."

To be fair, let's put those comments into context: Roenick was at a news conference for Mario Lemieux's charity golf tournament when he spoke out. Apparently, he couldn't wait until he was touring the children's ward of a hospital.

By comparison, Kenny Anderson's remarks about his finances, which became a prime exhibit of athlete delusions during the NBA lockout, were pretty mild. In an interview with the New York Times, Anderson said, clearly half in jest, that he might have to dump one of his eight luxury cars to make ends meet. In the same story, he said his financial pressures included paying for his mom's home and keeping afloat a business he had created, which employed people from his old neighborhood. But all that people remembered were the cars and the cluelessness.

To his credit, David Stern seemed very concerned about the public disdain for Anderson. The commissioner understood that the players sold the game and that the owners were fighting for the same thing that had hurt Anderson's image so much -- a desire to grab a few extra million dollars.

Now that they have been reconciled with the players, the NHL owners need to call attention to all of the league's nonwhiners. Their first goal needs to be reminding everyone, fans and the media, that this was a lockout, not a strike, and the owners made the call that ended the season. In fact, every chance they get, the owners should make the same point. Fans have to pay owners to get into a game, but they never identify with them or cheer for them, unless they happen to be accepting the Stanley Cup. Why shouldn't they let themselves be demonized for the next year or so? It's good business.

Sharks management would be wise to point out that many of the team's players, including Primeau, pooled their money to rent the team's practice rink in San Jose and train together. A union fight on behalf of wealthy athletes always turns off fans, but there is something touching in the solidarity. From the proper angle, it seems like team play. Even at the expense of their own images, the front offices should spin the picture in that direction.