As I type these words the NHL lockout/strike/labour action/five-on-five power play is entering its umpty-seventh consecutive week.
A nation yawns.
It is hard to work up enthusiasm over a back-alley donnybrook in which millionaires face off against billionaires. Vincent Lecavalier, captain of the Lightning, a team which plays out of that hockey hotbed, Tampa Bay, isn’t getting paid during the lockout but he’s probably got enough stuffed under the mattress to get by. Vincent has an eighty-five million dollar – yes, you read right – an $85,000,000 contract to chase a rubber disc in various arenas for the Lightning until 2019. He’s by far the best-paid NHL-er but the rest of the players aren’t living on table scraps. The average salary tops out at just under $2.5 million.
I stopped seriously following NHL hockey about four decades ago when the average salary was $25,000 a year. Star players like Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe did better — they were up in the hundred thousand-a-year range — but tears must cascade down their heavily-scarred cheeks when they hear that today the most tangle-footed, knuckle-dragging bench-sitting goon in the league makes 25 times as much as they ever did.
How can NHL owners shovel out that kind of money for salaries and still manage to be rolling in dough? The answer’s a simple one: advertising. In 1972 all teams in the NHL played on a rink surrounded by blank white boards and the single sponsor was Imperial Oil. Check those boards now. They are festooned and bespackled with ads for insurance companies, hockey gear manufacturers, banks, mortgage firms, department stores, beer, deodorants and cough medications. Likewise, the telecasts are splattered with ads for everything from tires to potato chips.
The fans pay the ultimate price and not just for the blitz of blurbs, plugs, jingles and 30-second spots that plague the at-home viewer — those ads dictate the pace of the game. First-time attendees at a live NHL game are often stunned at how often the on-ice action is unexpectedly halted for several minutes during which the players from both teams skate around in aimless figure-eights, waiting for a daisy chain of TV commercials to cycle through the broadcast. The NHL holds no monopoly on hockey advertising. A photo in the sports section of my newspaper shows Boston’s Joe Thornton streaking up the ice, but not in a Bruins uniform. Instead he’s wearing the colours of HC Davos, a European pro team based in Switzerland.
But it’s not Thornton’s uniform that caught my eye — it’s what’s plastered all over Thornton’s uniform. Advertisements. I can decipher ads on his skates, on his hockey stockings, his hockey pants and gloves. There are at least a dozen ad patches on his hockey sweater and undoubtedly more on the back side of it. His helmet carries a banner flogging Skoda automobiles. Thornton looks like he just skated through a garbage bin full of advertising flyers.
Ironically, in the same issue there’s a picture of Paul Henderson holding up the hockey jersey he was wearing when he scored the most famous goal ever – the one that gave Team Canada its triumph over the Russians back in 1972. The jersey features a large red abstract leaf, Henderson’s number, 19, the word CANADA – and that’s it. No ads, not even Henderson’s name.
But that was four decades ago. Back when hockey, not advertising, was the name of the game.