Two words immediately came to mind Sunday morning when it became clear the lockout had ended: thank goodness. Thank goodness relief was coming for people who relied on the NHL for income, hard-working people who were buckling under grocery bills, insurance premiums and gasoline prices.
Some are people you see such as ticket-takers, ushers, popcorn vendors and members of cleanup crews. The financial strain ran much deeper, to restaurant employees and food suppliers and truck drivers, to hotel housekeepers, valet parking attendants, waiting staff, bartenders and beyond.
Thank goodness the lockout ended – for their sake.
Let me get this out of the way before anyone jumps to conclusions: Despite my job description, the only effect the NHL lockout had on my life was a positive one. It mattered little whether they played this season, next season or never. The NHL is a lousy league that grossly overrated its relevance.
For me, its absence was rejuvenating. Part of me wished players and owners would have kept fighting until another season was wiped out and both sides suffered severe consequences. Maybe they would have understood desperation as defined in the real world rather than a postgame cliche used to explain their fantasy existence.
For months, feelings of entitlement were revealed by both sides when bickering about the unfairness of the other. You want inequity? Ask fans who for years shaved a few bucks from necessities so they could take their kids to a game, only to see a half-hearted effort and hear half-baked excuses about bad bounces, tough breaks and, of course, injuries.
Steve Ott was acquired to pump much-needed leadership and professionalism into the Sabres. He's known as a quality player and person. Getting him was a good move, but for him to say the lockout was “nerve-wracking” should be an insult to anyone who has ever emptied the change jar to buy a quart of milk.
In the coming days, if not already, players and league leaders will apologize to fans for taking away their game. They'll plead for forgiveness and promise it will not happen again. They'll talk about the give-and-take of negotiating a fair deal. They'll talk about being happy for the fans.
Good heavens, get over yourselves.
Nothing is more revolting than rich people fighting over money, and nothing is more false than a second-rate league and its players claiming they care about fans. They don't care about fans. They care about what fans do for them. Fans fueled a $3.3 billion industry that led to billionaires and millionaires growing greedier than ever.
The NHL needs fans, but here's a better question: Do fans need the NHL?
It could take time, but my guess is fans will be back in full force when the league gets rolling again. Buffalo is a true, blue hockey town that filled First Niagara Center for the Amerks. Television ratings for Stanley Cup playoffs are always high in Buffalo no matter how many times the Sabres fail to reach them.
We'll see how they respond in non-traditional hockey markets that could take or leave hockey. Push fans away once, and they might return. Push them away three times in Gary Bettman's reign of error, and they could be gone for good. The NHL did such a good job of expanding its fan base before alienating the very customers it needed.
You know it's a mess when it takes 113 days for Bettman and NHLPA chief Donald Fehr to solve a problem that the average Joe could have fixed in 113 minutes. Bettman and Fehr weren't negotiating for four months so much as deciding whose chest was hairier.
Owners who collected 43 percent of revenue are now getting 50 percent. Players who were getting 57 percent are getting 50 percent. They split the sandwich down the middle.
They reached various points of absurdity while trying to share big money that was flushed away with every game lost, every event canceled, every day that passed. One of the final obstacles was about player pensions. Players shouldn't need a pension given their annual salaries. They need a financial adviser and half a brain.
Who won? Who lost?
Really, who cares?
They salvaged part of the season, which is now compromised. Owners walked away with a greater percentage of revenue than they had under the previous agreement and the long-term deal they wanted. The players kept their long-term contracts that still allow for salaries to skyrocket.
Owners had more time and money than players did. The extreme wealth of the owners could withstand another year getting tossed in the trash can. In some cases, killing the season was a better alternative than playing one. In the end, owners were going to get more than they did under the previous CBA. It was a matter of how much.
If you're looking for someone to blame for this rumble, start with the owners. In 2005, they all but drew up the last CBA and stuffed it down the collective throat of the NHLPA. Seven years later, they came back complaining about their own contract. They demanded a new agreement more suited to filling their coffers.
No, it wasn't fair.
It was business.
The new collective bargaining agreement, much like the last one, is largely designed to protect owners from themselves. They have lacked discipline for years and will in the years ahead. Nobody could blame players for signing massive deals when the money was there. Players take what they can while they can.
Under this deal, assuming revenues climb, franchise values will increase again. It's impossible to say whether they will rise at the same rate as they did in the previous years because there's no calculating the damage.
History suggests harm will be minimal when looking at revenues that soared by 83 percent between lockouts.
Keep that in mind when walking into First Niagara Center or running to the store for merchandise. I'm not here to tell people how to spend their money, but fans can punish players and owners if they feel it's necessary. They can skip the game and take their family out for dinner and a few drinks. If you need to see the game, by all means, buy tickets.
Just be sure to tip the popcorn vendors and support the people from the real world. They needed the NHL more than anyone.