Detroit Red Wings: What’s Really at Stake This Lockout?

Photo courtesy of Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

By Rhys Richards (@RREsq)

A quick perusal of top sports websites will show that the National Hockey League lockout is not exactly a top priority. Granted, the Major League Baseball playoffs and relatively young National Football League season will probably always be more important than preseason NHL hockey in the United States, but the NHL does not even make the front page on websites such as CBS.

In strong hockey markets like Detroit, the ongoing lockout is likely less of a concern than it is in some of the struggling hockey markets. Despite the Detroit Tigers’ wins in Game 1 and 2 of their American League Division Series against the Oakland Athletics, many Detroit sports fans are frustrated that their Red Wings are not gearing up for the start of the season.  The Griffins first preseason game this weekend gave Red Wings fans a glimpse of Detroit prospects like Gustav Nyquist and Landon Ferraro, but young up-and-comers are not exactly what Detroit fans want to see in October.

As more and more top talents, including John Tavares, Claude Giroux, and Danny Briere, to name a few, sign to play overseas during the lockout, the NHL is once again at risk of relegating its importance in the major league sports world to an even more distant fourth place behind football, baseball, and basketball.

Much like the last lockout one short collective bargaining agreement ago in 2004-2005, this forced break between seasons is shortsighted and downright dangerous. For a league that continues to significantly increase its annual revenues, the NHL loves to test the dedication of its newfound fans.

The diehard fan will always return to watch his or her sport and team. The new fan may not. Both the NHL and NHLPA owe more to that fan than the current staring contest.

Last week, Henrik Zetterberg, the expected next captain of the Red Wings, told the Detroit Free Press that he did not plan to play in his native Sweden any time soon. Zetterberg said, “I’m going to stay for now.”  He added, “It’s going to be tough to go to Sweden for the insurance, and with all the taxes we have there. It’s going to be tough to go back to Sweden and play. But there are other leagues in Europe that you can go to.”

Despite Zetterberg’s early dedication to staying in Detroit and supporting the NHLPA, he apparently changed his mind over the weekend when he agreed to join EV Zug in Switzerland. Zetterberg told the Detroit Free Press, “I think, like I was before, I wanted to wait a little bit before I went and played (overseas). … But in the last few weeks, the indication is it’s going to get tougher and tougher to get spots over there, especially with the contract I have and insurance costs.”

Zetterberg will leave for Switzerland on Friday. Detroit fans may be excited to see what the star veteran can do with Red Wing rookie forward Damien Brunner, though many will agree that it would be better to see them gel playing at Joe Louis Arena.

Thus, the mass exodus of middle to top tier NHL players is truly alarming for the NHL fan in hopes of a short lockout. Zetterberg did not allay any concerns when he agreed that the whole season could be scrapped. He also warned that the Russian players who have already left, including Alex Ovehckin, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin, and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk could stay in Russia even after the labor dispute is resolved.

Detroit would have finished its preseason this past weekend but for the lockout. After several meetings between the NHL and NHLPA last weekend and a few more this week, a deal does not appear to be on the horizon.

The players are entitled to dig in, especially after giving into what amounted to the owners’ deal this last collective bargaining agreement, and deserve credit for the creativity that they have displayed in negotiations, relatively speaking, but both sides are seriously trying the understanding of NHL hockey fans and the professional sports world.

The NHL has already endured two labor disputes since 1994. No other major league sport has endured three lockouts in less than twenty seasons. Last year, both the NFL and NBA came to terms before much of their seasons were lost, though the latter did not begin until Christmas.

While the NHL’s three lockouts, including one that caused the loss of a full season, might suggest a more active player base, the casual fan likely sees a certain amateurism compared to the other three professional sports that dominate the North American sports landscape.

No matter which side is at fault for this current dispute, the NHL and NHLPA owe more to their fans and the game. The longer this lockout lingers, the more out of touch both sides will be with the fans, whether casual or diehard, of the truly beautiful game.   

Share your thoughts about the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings, and hockey in general with Rhys at Twitter: @RREsq.  He can be reached via email at  Join the many fans of The Hockey Guys on Facebook and Twitter @TheHockeyGuys

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