Tonawanda News

September 20, 2012

KEPPELER: Opportunities lost in NHL lockout

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — This was going to be the year.

For the past three years, the first cooler breezes of autumn have been the sign that it’s time to start looking at the preseason hockey schedule, to stake out a rare evening or afternoon when some other family or work commitment or activity isn’t already demanding our time and energy (and money). It’s become a tradition, of sorts, for either my husband or I to take our elder son to a Sabres game this time of year, a sort of parent-child-bonding ritual that we’ve maintained in the face of busy lives and increasingly hectic schedules for all of us.

Jim’s been watching hockey since he was a toddler, but he doesn’t care about preseason vs. regular season — just what’s going on on the ice and the festivities around him. The tickets are a little cheaper and the atmosphere a little more laid-back, but I daresay he pays more attention to the game then most of the adults in the arena, who are all too aware that the preseason means little and beer tastes better when hockey season starts.

Much to his disappointment, however, our very active younger son has so far been left out of this little routine. 

This year, for the first time, it was going to be different. All four of us, parents and kids alike, were ready to don our blue and gold, head out for a casual dinner and then to the First Niagara Center for that first taste of hockey. 

Finally, Sam had been judged not only mature enough to sit still for a game, but with a long enough attention span to start learning the basics: The positions, the players, even the beginnings of the strategy. His father, just a little younger then Sam is now when the Sabres were founded, knows more about the game than almost anyone I’ve ever met and cannot wait to pass that knowledge on.

It was a rite of passage to which we were all looking forward.

Instead, we’re focusing on our other fall activities: pumpkin farms, cider mills and Halloween parties. Jerseys will be worn, but not to games. Movie nights are planned instead of nightly hockey viewing.

And that first up-close-and-personal taste of the game won’t be happening — probably not this fall, at any rate, and I find it frighteningly likely not at all this season.

I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs of the NHL collective bargaining agreement and the mechanics of a lockout. This time, if not the last, I tend to come down more on the side of the players than the owners ... but then I’ve always tended more toward the rank-and-file than the people-sitting-in-the-big-office sorts. But at the same time, neither can I truly relate with people who are ultimately getting paid more money than I’ll ever see ... to play a game.

I read the news stories on the lockout and I see lots of moaning and groaning about money and salary caps and management. From neither side do I see any sense of urgency, a sense of what this could do to the NHL and its already suffering image and wider fan base.

Some fans will always be there. They’ll forgive anything for the sheer love of the game. When everyone, players and owners alike, stops whining and gets down to business and finally gets arena doors throughout the U.S. and Canada unlocked and games back on the air ... they might not be happy, but they’ll be there. Because they can’t stay away.

But some won’t. They’ll wander off, figuratively, in search of entertainment and discover a renewed fondness for football or baseball or heaven knows what else. Maybe it won’t even be intentional. But they’ll be gone nonetheless. And they might never come back.

And some? Some may never start.

How many kids out there, like one Sam Keppeler, were looking forward to their first hockey game this year? How many kids were primed for that lifelong, bone-deep interest, that love of the game, to take hold?

Could they find it later? Of course they could. Will it be the same? Who knows? 

But if this keeps up, one of these days the NHL, players and owners, will find out. When the kids like Sam — the children of the lockout era — grow up, will they be so quick to forgive?

I hope the NHL, players and owners, don’t learn to their sorrow that there are some things you just can’t put a price tag on.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com.