The 2012 NHL lockout may have been embarrassing for the league and may even have done fatal damage to the NHL's credibility with fans in some of its less traditional hockey markets; however, north of the 49th parallel, where there are no minor hockey markets, an entirely different dynamic was at play. This most recent NHL Lockout began a conversation amongst hockey fans in Canada about exactly how much damage the lockout may have done to their national pastime. The debate produced some interesting results.
The question as to the extent of the threat the NHL lockout posed to Canada's game raged across sports talk radio and discussion forums across the Internet and, true to form, it didn't take long for the watchful eye of sports marketing companies, like Nike, to pile on.
On December 19, Nike released a new series of lockout-themed commercials (one of which is included below) that attempted to harness perceived fan anger over the NHL work stoppage and paint a picture of a national pastime under threat. The campaign even came with its own Twitter hashtag, #HockeyIsOurs.
But was the threat real?
Alan Hull is a writer for Copper & Blue, a popular site covering the Edmonton Oilers. When I put the question of how Canada was dealing with the NHL lockout to him, he had this reaction:
I think the question is not whether or not Canadians missed the NHL, of course they did. I think the question is whether or not they missed it at as much as they thought they would. It certainly changed the mediums Canadians used to access their love of hockey. If Canadians find that the NHL was replaced more easily then they thought it would be, some fans may choose not to come back, as a consequence.
While Nike was attempting to wrap itself in the red and white of the Canadian flag, there were millions of Canadians quietly going about their hockey business each and every day the lockout dragged on. In December, the Toronto Marlies—the farm team of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs—took advantage of the empty arena their parent team had vacated and began playing their home games at Toronto's Air Canada Centre. The Marlies broke the AHL record for fan attendance, playing before crowds approaching 20,000.
One of the ironies of the 2012 NHL lockout was that AHL teams, as well as the various international teams of countries competing in the IIHF World Junior Championships in Moscow, were stocked with an unprecedented amount of young talent. Even the normally mundane Spengler Cup club tournament, held annually in Davos, Switzerland, was blessed with an abundance of refugee NHL stars looking for a place to play.
All of these competitions received unprecedented levels of support from supposedly despondent Canadian hockey fans. According to The Brioux Report, a Canadian blog which covers weekly television rankings, The World Junior Hockey Championship broadcasts on TSN (Canada's version of ESPN) averaged over 2.2 million viewers per night and dominated the Canadian television rankings for each night of the tournament. Those matches were often played in the early morning hours, forcing millions of Canadian hockey fans from bed to watch their nations young talent on display.
Far from feeling threatened, Canadians were happy to display their world class hockey knowledge and seek out the opportunity to view the world's top hockey talent, wherever it might be on display. There was certainly no shortage of such opportunity during the lockout.
Now that the 2012 NHL lockout is over, the only question remaining would seem to be, did most Canadians ever really feel its absence?