Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From the lockout to referee-gate, it's a bad time to be a fan

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We have our own problems here in Winnipeg but there is absolutely no question we should be happy we don't live in Edmonton today where the hockey team's owner is doing his very best Victor Newman imitation.

"Miguel, call the pilot and tell him to gas up the jet. I have a city to blackmail."

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It's not just in Edmonton where ownership is baring its fangs to remind us they are little more than cash-sucking vampires. It's all over the sporting landscape in North America. From the NFL using replacement referees, to the NHL locking out its players to Mr. Katz sticking a gun in the ribs of the people of Edmonton, the unwritten contact between fans and the owners of their teams is getting trampled these days.

Very few of us hold close the romantic notion the existence of our team is about us having something to cheer about and build civic pride in our community. Most of us understand the team we adore is just another business venture for our town's version of Monty Burns.

But most often ownership is good enough to hide its pure lust for commerce behind a thin veil. Go ahead, take my money but at least pretend to care. We'll forgive you the odd bad draft pick and poor judgement behind an ill-advised coaching hire. Make us feel like you are trying and reinvesting our money for the betterment of the team and we'll be back, again and again and again. Very little that ownership does can turn us off our team. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers haven't won a Grey Cup in over 20 years in an eight-team league and they regularly sell out. That's blind faith and loyalty.

That code, however, has been suspended throughout professional sports this fall as we've seen our leagues and the owners show utter disregard for the sensibilities of the fan.

How else can Katz's little jaunt to Seattle on Monday be interpreted? In classic soap opera villain speak, "Give me what I want or I will do something terrible to you." Like steal your team.

Missile

Katz had his PR folks at the Oilers fire off this little missile on Monday to explain his tour of Seattle's KeyArena.

"The Katz Group has been listening to proposals from a number of potential NHL markets for some time," read a statement from the Oilers on Monday. "After more than four years of trying to secure an arena deal and with less than 24 months remaining on the Oilers' lease at Rexall Place, this is only prudent and should come as no surprise."

There's an expression in business, "Let's open our kimonos," to be transparent in a negotiation. Mr. Katz has done this and a lot more. It's his right since he owns the team. But that doesn't make it right. Far from it.

The NFL has allowed the very integrity of its games be diminished over less than one per cent of its annual revenue which is the divide it is squabbling over with its officials.

They are spitting in our faces and daring us to do something about. We're not. TV ratings, ticket sales and merchandise sales have not been affected one bit by the referee lockout. If there had been a downturn in business, commissioner Roger Goodell would have gone back to his owners and said, "OK, we've got to give them what they want."

The NFL is the most powerful and successful sports league in North America and for ownership to allow the product to be sullied in the manner it was on Monday night is beyond belief. The officials on the field are the direct connection to the league on a game day basis and uphold the integrity of the sport.

Games are being won and lost by the decisions made by these replacement officials. The NFL has lets its fans down.

Finally there is the NHL lockout. The owners aren't entirely to blame in this exchange, despite the players claiming they only want a "fair" deal. Let me tell, there's nothing fair about men shooting pucks for a living making more money than people trying to cure cancer or educate our children. So keep that word out of this. It's disingenuous.

It's a bad time to be a fan. You can't watch hockey. In Edmonton the owner is threatening to move the Oilers and in the NFL your $2 wager is a shot in the dark with the zebras the league is employing.

The sad part is the people we trust to protect our games don't care.

Maybe fans shouldn't be so quick to forgive and forget this time.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2012 C3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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