By now, hockey fans have grown accustomed to discussing, listening to, and reading about economics. Instead of enjoying the fastest sport on ice, we’ve been reduced to learning about hockey-related revenue, salary caps, CBA-circumventing contracts, and how much money each organization is losing as the lockout drags on. The almighty dollar is both the cause of the lockout, and the cost that the players, owners, and employees of the clubs are paying as this mess continues, which is why the money side of this argument is all we ever hear about.
When it comes to the fans’ side of things, however, the cost of the lockout is measured less in dollars and cents and more in emotions, and memories. We’re a passionate bunch, and we could really care less about the economics of the game, as long as there is still a game to follow. It could be argued that the fan community stands to lose far more from a cancelled NHL season than any of the money makers, so I thought it was time to focus the talk on the real losers of the lockout. Today I will focus on the category of fans who could care the least about the economics of it all:
Youth Hockey Players
It’s no secret: kids who play sports tend to idolize professional athletes. Not to take away anything from those playing in the collegiate or minor league ranks, but the true heroes of young athletes everywhere are those lucky few who play under the lights in the big leagues. Youth hockey clinics and practices provide perhaps the best example of this level of hero worship, as nearly every player at these events is adorned in the jersey of his or her favorite player. Young goalies wear Ryan Miller jerseys, and skaters zip across the ice with the names of Myers, Vanek, and Pominville stitched across their backs. Watching their favorite NHL players live or on TV gives youth hockey players the inspiration they later channel into working hard in practice, as they chase their dreams of being able to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup themselves.
And it’s not just watching the players play the game that these kids are being robbed of; the lockout will also result in the loss of community events such as Skate With The Sabres. This annual event, which is sponsored by Tim Horton‘s, epitomizes what professional sports should be all about: professional athletes sharing their love of the game with the young fans that buy their merchandise and come out to cheer them night in and night out. Each Skate With The Sabres night gives hundreds of young skaters the chance to spend 45 minutes on the ice at First Niagara Center with two current Buffalo Sabres and Sabretooth, followed by an autograph signing. It’s an amazing experience, one which I have been able to attend twice now, but it will be just one of the largely-unnoticed casualties of the lockout if games get cancelled through December of this year.
This is not to say this lockout is going to cause a generation of youth hockey players to abandon the sport. Not having NHL players to watch, or come out and meet, will upset a lot of kids, sure, but their love of the game is going to keep them showing up to the rink every day. Still, I know first-hand how an event such as Skate With The Sabres can have huge impact on a young player. My son went from being a casual fan who was still developing an interest in playing hockey, to being hell-bent on becoming the best player in the world so he could play for the Buffalo Sabres and win the Stanley Cup – all because of his initial trip to the First Niagara Center. I’m thrilled he had the opportunity to participate in this fantastic event, but it saddens me to think of how many young players in Western New York, and around the country, will be deprived of such an inspiring experience this season, which is why I believe these young athletes are some of the true losers of the current NHL lockout.