The negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement have captured the hockey fan's attention of late. Questions about loyalty almost inevitably arise. Who should the fan side with? The owners provide the league, but the players provide the game. The players hoist the Stanley Cup. but the owners hoist the banners. Who really deserves our support, and why should we care what happens with the ongoing labour dispute?
Here's a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which no NHL owners exist. This means that not only do the current owners not exist, but NO NHL owners exist to run the league's franchises. What remains? Well, the best players in the world are still around, ready to play hockey. We can all agree that owners don't contribute directly to the on-ice product of the NHL.
But we can also agree that the owners aren't the sole providers of hockey arenas. The proliferation of alternate (i.e. non-NHL) leagues means that NHL owners don't control the only NHL-size rinks in the world (or, for that matter, in the continent). In a world of no NHL owners, spaces still exist where high-level hockey competition could take place.
What about the Stanley Cup? In 1947 it was declared that the NHL was in control of who won the Cup in a given year. But that ruling appears to be subject to Lord Stanley's will; non-NHL teams can still be awarded the Hockey Holy Grail.
So without the owners, what remains? We still have the best hockey players in the world. We still have arenas for them to play in. We still have the Stanley Cup for them to play for. What is it specifically that the owners can withhold? Certainly money, though we can imagine that in the event of a lockout, players would be willing (or forced) to play for less. And they obviously own the franchises, which means that Kessel and Grabovski could never again skate as the Maple Leafs (were there no owners).
But beyond that? Take seriously for a moment the idea that the league is irredeemably corrupt, and that hockey must either survive without the NHL or not survive at all. What, from the perspective of the fan, is actually lost? Why should we care at all what owners expect, or how much money they claim to need to make? While the talent exists, and the spaces exist to house it, hockey cannot die. The casual fan may lose interest if the Maple Leafs can't play in the NHL Playoffs, but will any of us? If hockey is still being played, will any of us really stop watching because MLSE doesn't have a stake in it?
Hockey lives on despite the fate of the NHL, and fans would do well to separate the two concepts. The former does not require the latter. However you feel about millionaires wanting to keep making millions of dollars (i.e. to keep making what their contracts are worth--since seriously, the NHL wants to renege on existing contracts--which isn't even what they're asking for), think about this: if hockey doesn't require owners, but does require players, who should be getting your money?
Anyone who can explain why NHL owners are necessary is invited to explain why. From this writer's point of view, though, hockey need not be held hostage by Bettman and co.