A friend of mine, a fellow Habs fan, called me on Sunday morning to talk about the end of the lockout. He ended up breaking the news because I had so distanced myself from the ongoing foolishness between the NHL and the NHLPA that I had stopped checking for updates first thing every morning. I have to admit, the news was rather anticlimactic. It was good to hear we'll no longer be subjected to basketball highlights interrupted only by the minutiae of compliance buyouts, sources of hockey-related revenue and pension plan details every time we turn on the sports news. On the other hand, my primary response to the end of the lockout was, "Oh well, back to losing sleep on game nights."
That's the funny thing. I'm angry at the NHL owners for making the lockout happen. I'm not exactly thrilled with the way some of the players behaved during it. Yet, I know I will still watch the Canadiens when their games start again. Now, however, it's a bit different than it was in years past. Now, if they're down 5-0 to the Rangers, I'll probably shut the game off and grab an extra hour of sleep rather than stick it out in the hope of a miraculous comeback. If they do manage to come back, I can find out about it in the morning and be happy. If they don't, I won't be quite as bothered by the score as I would have been five years ago.
I will be just as excited to see a Tomas Plekanec shorthanded breakaway as I've always been. I'll still laugh when Carey Price stones someone in a shootout and strikes a pose, or when Eric Cole high-fives the ref. I'll still be interested in how Marc Bergevin handles the team, what P.K.Subban's deal will be (I'd give him $3.5 for two years and his long-term deal after that), and whether Andrei Markov can return to form. I won't be buying NHL merchandise, though. I made a promise to myself not to contribute to the money the two sides will be fighting over in eight or ten years time when this new deal ends and another lockout looms.
That brings me back to the friend who told me the lockout was over. He and I and a group of other like-minded people from various parts of North America try to get to Montreal once a year to catch a game at the Bell Centre. We pay for plane tickets, hotels, meals out, seats with 100% mark-ups (after we fail to be chosen in the group sales lottery), concessions and, usually, some sort of souvenir. It's a costly weekend, but for us, the thrill of hearing the roof blow off the place when the Habs score in OT is worth it. There's nothing like being transported by the game so you're jumping up and down but don't remember leaving your seat. We have come to love this team for many reasons and it's that common love of the Canadiens that brought us together in the first place. Sticking to my guns about not supporting hockey-related revenue won't be difficult, with the sole exception of this yearly visit. It would take a significant gesture of apology from the Canadiens for their role in the lockout and disregard for fans to bring us back. That's why I wrote to Geoff Molson.
I told him about our disappointment in the way fans were at the bottom of the priority list during the lockout. I explained how we come from all over and spend a lot of money to celebrate the Habs every year. I asked him, if he has any power at all, not to allow a lame "Thank you, fans" campaign with nothing behind the words. I suggested he offer the first three home games free of charge, complete with free concessions, and that children be allowed in for free for the rest of the season. That, I told him, would show the fans who support his team and fill his coffers every year the Canadiens are genuine in their desire to make things right with them. Of course, in my new hockey cynicism, I realized my suggestion is extremely unlikely to happen and expected my email to disappear into the ether along with the first half of the NHL season.
So, the next day, I got an answer from Geoff Molson.He thanked me for my letter and for my and my friends' support of the team. He said he understands the fans' frustrations and that we're not alone in that. He hopes the new management and new players on the team will make the games more exciting this year. And he hopes I and my friends come back to the Bell Centre this season, with thanks for our spending on games in the past. He was very gracious and has probably been sending a lot of these kinds of emailed replies to angry fans in the last few days.
In the end, though, Geoff Molson did not say the Canadiens will do anything to make this up to fans. He apologized, but apologies are words and, as we learned last time around, words are cheap. Seats in the Bell Centre and a pint of warm Molson's are not.
While it was kind of Mr.Molson to respond to my concerns, his answer has not affected my ambivalence about returning to the Bell Centre. I'll watch the games and I'll support the Canadiens in spirit because the habit of a lifetime is hard to break, but when it comes to putting my money where my heart is, I'm just not sure. Maybe friendship in the Habs will trump the reluctance to contribute to the NHL's almighty bottom line. Maybe, if the team's ownership isn't prepared to make it worth our while to attend games, the players on the ice will. One thing I'm sure about is, even if the Bell Centre is full every night, as it likely will be, the fans are coming back a little more warily with a little less enthusiasm or patience. That, and nine months without NHL hockey, makes them, if they're like me, a whole lot more willing to tune out and walk away if this team proves it isn't worth the price of admission.