NHL’s Return: Will the NHL get it right

Wednesday afternoon the National Hockey League Board of Governors is expected to ratify the 10 year collective bargaining agreement the league reached with the NHL Players Association early Sunday morning. The NHL continues to operate in lockout mode, until the agreement is finalized (both sides voting to accept the agreement) the league continues to be on hold, yet to announce any measures to help “welcome back” NHL fans after the league’s third protracted lockout in 19 years.

"It became a comedy," Ken Wong a marketing professor at Queen’s University told The Vancouver Province. "It seemed like they were trying to make it as hostile as possible.

"I guess what strikes me, is what a perfect lesson this has been in how to destroy an untouchable brand," said Wong. "They've got a big job ahead of them. Their No. 1 priority is to recognize what the reality is. Don't think it's going to be business as usual. You owe the fans a statement of apology or regret. They've been done a great disservice. They have to know you're doing everything you can to make this up."

NHL teams have been rehiring and hiring sales personal in hopes the season will start on Saturday January 19. The NHL plans on playing a truncated 48 game schedule that is expected to end on or before April 30. The Stanley Cup playoffs are expected to begin in early May, with game seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs being played no later than June 28.

Pittsburgh Penguins majority co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, and CEO David Morehouse issued the following statement Monday: “We offer our apology. There is nothing we can say to explain or excuse what has happened over the past four months.

“However, now that the NHL is back, we want to assure you that the Pittsburgh Penguins will do everything we can to regain your trust and show how much we value your amazing support.

“We want to thank you for your patience and your loyalty to the Penguins. We hope to repay it many times over. Our commitment to winning the Stanley Cup and our commitment to you has not changed.”

Words yes, an apology yes, but nothing more than words. Empty words at best. Any suggestion the Penguins intend to do anything for their fans other than say they are sorry – at this point no. The Penguins have a season ticket base in excess of 14,000; the team sells the remaining tickets as part of their game day sales. The Penguins have a waiting list of more than 7,000 people hoping to buy season tickets. Regardless of when the NHL returned the Penguins were not going to be hurt by the lockout.

The Ottawa Sun reported Tuesday reported the Ottawa Senators season ticket base dropped from 11,300 to 10,500. The organization hoped to have 13,000 season tickets sold at the start of the 2012-13 NHL season (if the season had begun in October). According to Senators president Cyril Leeder the organization hoped to sell 800 more season tickets in the next few weeks and hit the 13,000 figure at the start of the 2013-14 NHL season, putting the franchise a full year behind their stated goals.

"Will the Canadian fans come back?," Wong told The Vancouver Province. "I think they will but it will be with a chip on their shoulder and that's a bad thing. When people have a chip on their shoulder, they can't wait to get even. When they get a chance to take their business elsewhere, they will.

"People were talking about the NHL in really visceral terms," Wong said. "'I'm disgusted. I want to puke.' You heard that before but not to that extent."

Players continue to apologize, however it’s clear and one doesn’t have to read too closely between the lines, NHL players continue to point fingers.

"I would like to believe that if larger groups of players, owners and executives were able to interact more often and contribute ideas to the game and the business, then there would be at least a little bit of trust built over time," star Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller told ESPN.com via email Monday. "We could invite a few journalists in there once in a while! Important interaction between players and the league shouldn't happen only on the occasion of important league business, like a collective bargaining agreement.

"The problem now is that I am not sure any player will ever forgive the league executives, let alone start to trust them. The league needs to reach out to the players after they take care of the fans and start to build some trust again. I think the way fans are treated entering this season will be a telling sign of how things can move forward. If the league acts appropriately, it will show at least an understanding that things are not OK and things have to get better in the NHL. Fans are pissed and a big part of me is happy to see that because these work stoppages can't go on anymore, or hockey suffers. That has been my biggest concern in all of this, despite what people may think about me or how they interpret what I have said about this lockout."

Miller suggesting “problem now is that I am not sure any player will ever forgive the league executives” is the last thing hockey fans wanted to hear, another player suggesting bridges cannot be rebuilt, fences will not be mended.

"I think that the length of the agreement solidifies the stability of the relationship with everyone," veteran Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, who last month raised eyebrows when he was quoted saying he was embarrassed for the game, told ESPN.com Monday. "Right now what we have to do, and unfortunately there is a business part of sport, but the most important part is right in front of us, and that’s the game itself. That’s what we all have to focus in on. We all learn from every experience we’re in. But the most important thing is the game itself. At times feelings got high during this, feelings got low, but right now it’s just all about the game."

Lamoriello remains today what he has always represented to the National Hockey League – a voice of reason. The New Jersey Devils general manager led the Devils to three Stanley Cup championships, unlike the finger pointing Miller a goaltender with the Buffalo Sabres, Lamoriello hopes for better days ahead for the NHL.

The NHL is not going to repair its brand overnight; it will take time for the NHL to re-establish itself as a reliable brand. The important steps in the days that follow ratification of the CBA include tangible actions directed towards the league’s fan base, actions speak louder than words.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom