Sunday, March 20, 2011

(Head) Shot Across the Bow

Head shots and player safety are hot topics when it comes to hockey these days. A simple Google search of "nhl headshots" yields 250,000 results. GM's are talking, owners are writing angry letters to the league, and sponsors and fans are talking about it more than ever. I wonder though if the collective bark is worse than the bite.  

What's it going to take?

Let us go back to another point in time when mild mannered Canadians went berserk... When oil prices where on the rise and the price of gas in Canada was creeping towards 70 cents a litre. We all cried, "outrage and collusion!", and demanded an immediate government investigation. People were paying for gas with bags of pennies in protest, perhaps forgetting that your minimum wage gas jockey is probably the furthest person from the problem, and in most cases higher than Charlie Sheen.

So we got our inquiry, and do you know what it uncovered? Nothing! There was no funny business going on, and certainly not any collusion. It was all just a classic example of good ol' fashioned supply and demand. The same supply that also happens to demand that gas prices go up on every long weekend, and go up when current oil prices go up (even though when the oil used to make the gas in the pumps it was bought at the market rates from months before), and go up on days that end in "y", and go slightly down when the market is flat and people are generally more concerned about something else.

You'd expect a bit more outrage. At least I expected it, but you know what happened? Nothing! People kind of grumbled and went on with their day and continued to take abuse in areas where the sun doth not shine. I always thought it was because we all needed to keep spending money on gas (what the hell were we supposed to do, walk?) but there was clearly more at play than simple supply and demand. Canada has a shit-ton of oil, so high oil prices are kind of to our advantage. Plus, the government taxes the living hell out of consumer transportation petroleum so as long as we're buying it they're making money. Lots of money. I mean lots.

Fast forward from that time to the present day and take a closer look at another Canadian controversy, Internet usage based billing (UBB).

There has been much hullabaloo here over a recent decision by the CRTC that would essentially allow the backbone provider of the Internet impose usage based billing, effectively eliminating any unlimited download internet accounts, and allowing them to charge all other Internet providers and individuals exorbitant fees based on per gigabyte use. Funny how at the heart of all this, when people are starting to download and stream more movies and TV shows, the very same company is desperately trying to sell you satellite TV. You see what's going on here? One way or another Canadians are taking it in places they don't want it - and here's a hint - the sun doth not shine there either.

Since all the DSL internet providers must use Ma Bell's infrastructure they are at their mercy when it comes to fees - something the Canadian government and the CRTC is supposed to keep an eye on so that Bell doesn't get out of line (it's what Canadians get for having a single company lay the only wire in the ground 100 years ago). The recent decision meant that all other providers would be charged based on gigabyte usage, effectively allowing Bell Canada to run amok - while still gouging consumers for all their other services. Once this decision was made public Canadians did something for which they're not quite known...

They went bat-shit crazy.

With the exception of the outward display of senseless looting and violence exhibited during the G20, this was a hissy fit of historical proportions. The strange thing about this is that even though there wasn't a massive threat to stop using services or somehow hurt company profits the decision was still overturned by the government and they are being forced to go back and come up with something a bit more palatable. But how? I'll tell you how... 

Canadians went to their politicians and yelled and screamed and put reams and reams of paper and petitions in front of their members of parliament. Two things are important here:
  1. Canada is run by a minority government. There are more opposed to this government than those in support and if only they had a common issue to form their rally cry around they could really make some noise heading into an election. Also, if the ruling government didn't listen to reason they'd be crucified in the media, so they needed to at least feign interest and show that they were in touch with the average Canadian.

  2. Politicians were forced to work. If it's one thing I know about politicians it's they really don't like to do much more work than necessary, and piles of paperwork streaming in, and screaming constituents knocking on their doors were starting to cramp their cushy day jobs.
So, the only way to get everything back to normal was for the government to step in and overturn the decision. Everyone wins in point #1 (or everyone involved at least thinks they've won), and it also makes the headache of #2 go away. Say what you want, but I think a well manipulated minority government can be a great way to get stuff done, and whether it was known at the time or not Canadians found the straw that broke the camel's back. Something they failed to accomplish back when they started taking out second mortgages to put gas in the car.

Now let's go back to the issue of headshots and player safety in the NHL. Historically, it has taken a serious event (death or near death) for any major change in hockey to be adopted. It took a girl in the stands dying from getting hit in the head with the puck before they put in nets above the glass. Magnetic or flexible post holders were introduced only after countless players were seriously injured and/or had careers come to an end after being wrapped around the iron bars of the net.

So short of something tragic happening on the ice, what's it going to take? We've got sponsors (Air Canada and Via Rail) writing letters and tossing around idle threats, owners writing letters and blogging (blogging!), and let's not forget the NHL meetings where there is lots of talk, and committees, and promises to book a meeting about sitting down to possibly discuss something.

It's going to take money, or rather a lack of it. 

Money makes the world go 'round, and that is something that should be a factor in every decision an NHL sponsor or fan makes. Is going to see an NHL hockey game worth it? Is putting up sponsorship dollars worth it? Sponsors dropped Tiger Woods like a bad habit so their images would not be tarnished, and every NHL sponsor should take a long hard look at whether or not the NHL and the game of hockey best represents their image.  The fans in Long Island have been making that value-based decision all season and the Islanders have their ledgers filled with red ink to show for it. 

I want someone to ask Islanders owner Charles Wang and GM Garth Snow, "If the NHL proposed a stiffer headshot penalty and it guaranteed you 2000 more seats were filled every game, would you vote in favour of it?"

The team on the ice has everything to do with business. The team on the ice is put together by General Managers who are at the mercy of fiscally concerned owners trying to maximize ticket sales while minimizing costs. Brian Burke is told by MLSE how much rope he has to work with to build a team. If it results in winning, then great. If not, MLSE has already done the arithmetic and ensured that the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan will see their stock dividends just as promised, and all of this appears to be OK because there seems to be enough sponsorship and corporate support and people content to shell out for tickets and merchandise no matter what.

The only way to get head-shots and player safety addressed any quicker than the existing glacial pace is for:


  • sponsors to stop sponsoring; 
  • companies to stop filling corporate boxes and season seats; and 
  • fans to stay home and read a book instead

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