Ode to my beloved hockey

I miss hockey. I miss “Hockey Night in Canada” (a Canadian tradition since my childhood). I miss the banter in the office every Monday morning discussing the weekend’s games. It seems as if the current NHL lockout, now 90-plus days old and going strong, has turned this coming winter into a rather dull one up here in Canada. 

For those residing in the United States, Canada’s love affair with hockey might seem rather incomprehensible. So, permit me to explain. Up through the 1960s professional sports in Canada meant hockey and only hockey.

Baseball is short-lived. The Montreal Expos came into being in 1969, and the franchise moved to Washington, D.C., in 2004. The somewhat-more-successful Toronto Blue Jays broke into the league in 1977 and have yet to match their heyday in the early 1990s when they earned two championships and hosted an all-star game. Basketball brought the Vancouver Grizzlies from 1995 to 2001, leaving the Toronto Raptors to be the sole representative in the North (and not a particularly invigorating one, at that). Our very own Canadian Football League (the CFL) has some ardent supporters, but the entire league is hardly at the same standard as the NFL or even the NCAA.

Ergo, hockey, for Canada, is the only real game in town. While I bemoan the loss of a much-loved pastime, I’ll easily get over it. There’s so much more to life than hockey — work, writing, scripted television, novels, movies, restaurants, theater, my wife (not necessarily in that order of importance). But the fact remains that professional sports are more than just the owners, players, sportscasters, advertisers and arenas.

For the hospitality industry, the assumed loss of the season has already impacted restaurants and proximal lodging institutions. On a broader scale, our local newspapers have reported only a modest decline in beverage sales; pubs and bars seem to have shifted to other sports, the patrons resigned to new forms of entertainment and a nightly routine. And that’s just it — people have already moved on.

So, what of the strike: millionaire players arguing with billionaire owners. Who really cares? In the grand scheme of things, this entire charade is trivial. The only winners are the lawyers for both sides, who in prolonging this disagreement stand to make even more in fees.

What is the learning from all this? Disputes should never get to the point of a strike. At this point, everyone loses, and consumers move on to other things. Don’t let a consumer “pass over” your hotel because you’ve failed to keep up with the times.

Canadians will avidly wait for the NHL’s return, but can you say the same for the Americans? Toronto and Montreal will forever have viable hockey franchises, but what about regions where the sport isn’t idolized like religion? I’m talking about places like Atlanta, Phoenix, Fort Lauderdale or Nashville.

If you find yourself in a volatile terrain with lots of competition or a wavering influx of fresh faces, any little operational hiccup can seriously impact your bottom line. You must be vigilant so that there’s never an excuse for a customer to book elsewhere.

Even more importantly, humans are creatures of habit, and when you remove hockey from the daily grind, people will move on. They’ll start watching other sports to fill the void, so much so that when the players finally return to the ice, no one will remember or care. They will have already formed new habits, be it basketball, college football, UFC, golf, soccer or NASCAR.

Like any successful brand, teams in the NHL must consistently deliver on their promise to provide quality entertainment. Right now, they are failing on all fronts. When you compare this strike to your hotel, consider what habits you are instilling in your consumers. What do you do to encourage return visits? How easy is it for customers to book with you and make special requests? What do you do onsite to develop personal relationships with guests to convert them from visitors into devoted fans?