End of an era: the closure of the NHL Fan Association

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman once tasked the NHL Fan Association to reach a following of 70,000 fans. - Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

A long-tenured organization that wished to represent the voice of National Hockey League fans goes the way of so many fan-representative groups before.

The email sent out escaped me; it was just another one in a multitude of emails that I get daily - personal, professional, spam... You know how it is (unless you've graduated all communications to social networks). When I finally got to the e-mail in question, three days after the fact, the message title was benign.  I'd seen it before; several times before.  I'd almost say "regularly" but it was more a long duration of exposure more so than regularity of exposure to it.

"NHLFA - Member Update"

Ah, yes, the National Hockey League Fan Association; an association founded in 1998 that hoped to organize fans and represent them with regard to issues that affect the NHL.  Borne from disdain of the Alexi Yashin holdout with the Ottawa Senators by season ticket holders Jim Boone and Jim Spendlove, the NHLFA peaked long before the Internet became a way of life.  It was not grown through input from bloggers or through social media, and didn't burst with growth during the 2004-05 or 2012 NHL lockouts.  In fact, it was more common for other fan groups to pop up vowing to represent the fans and then simply dissipate after a labor situation was resolved or some other grievance that riled up fans digressed. The NHLFA continued on.

At least they had.  The email that was received earlier this week was an announcement of the end of the NHLFA:

The following note is being sent to the 31,000+ Members of the NHL Fans' Association.

After 15 years of representing hockey fans from around the world, it is with mixed emotions that we announce the closure of the National Hockey League Fans' Association.

First, thank you for taking the time to support the NHLFA.  Regardless of when you joined, your support was always appreciated.  The countless emails of support you sent over the years kept us invigorated to keep moving forward.

One fan in particular, Mati Sauks, repeatedly supported this online community through thick and thin and I can confidently state that the NHLFA was always as strong as Mati's support.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mati.

Hundreds of sports media called upon the NHLFA over the years for the collective thoughts of NHL fans.  Thank you for your support.

Unfortunately, the NHL and NHL Players' Association never respected this organization, their largest community of fans.

The NHLFA.com website will close on December 8.

[...]

Thank you.
Jim Boone

Regarding not being respected by the league or the PA, I do wish to point out here that around the turn of the millennium, Boone and Spendlove were challenged by the NHL to gain large following:

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he's fine with our Association, but that if we purport to represent NHL fans we should increase our membership numbers - dramatically. We agree. To that end, we have accepted a challenge of reaching 75,000 members. It's a large number, but one we can reach if all our members work hard at spreading the word and getting their hockey-minded friends and

The above quote was taken from the NHLFA web site through the Wayback Machine from October 5th, 2000, when the NHLFA had 15,804 listed members.  The Association ends 13 years and two months later, with 31,166 registered members, well short of the growth goal set by the NHL and not even double the membership of 13 years earlier.

The lack of gains despite longevity shows how the spectator-consumer complex is a very divided demographic.  Some want nothing more than the game and care not for an ounce of the internal politics of contracts and rules, collective bargaining or anything outside the field of play. Others do want a say and their voices heard, but are divided at so many levels and on so many issues.  As I wrote in September 2012:

... Fans in general are divided by their allegiances to their teams, to their geographic locations, and by their positions on league issues that go beyond the central focus of these 2012 collective bargaining talks between the league and the NHL Players Association (that being money). Rule enforcement, player discipline, rules, fighting, player safety, etc. Our approach to these issues are prefaced with the divided perspectives on expansion, franchise locations, visors, the trapezoid, the shootout, and numerous other issues that usually take center stage during an NHL season.

While that quote is squarely about the NHL, what's being said does not just apply for pro hockey but applies to all professional sports.

In the end, though, I lament the ceasing of a fan organization I joined ages ago.  The organization atrophied after a quick start (the aforementioned 15,000 fans in two years during a time when the web was a fledgling means of communication) showed interest was there for such a group to represent the fans.  The problem is, development stunted for one reason or another, and the direction of the group didn't adapt with the growing means to reach the audience of potential members.

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