It’s a sickening feeling to be the fan of an NHL team whose playoffs hopes are dashed by midseason. Now you have to suffer through them playing out the string with nothing to cheer for.
Oh, sure, you could root for the one or two players who, despite the team’s lousy record, have pretty good stats. You can put faith in the promise of the youngsters in the lineup or on the farm foretelling a bright future beyond this awful season. You can hope the players will “play for pride” and at least have a solid second-half effort so you have something to cling to for next season. You can cheer them on as “playoff spoilers” against some of the bubble clubs, especially if it’s a team you hate.
But let’s be honest, that’s small consolation for the knowledge your club won’t get within sniffing distance of the playoffs. Hell, you can’t even get the upper hand in trash talk with rival fans, because your opponent inevitably plays the trump card, “At least my team didn’t get eliminated before the New Year!”
So, what to do in the meantime? Cheering for a team whose playoff hopes are crushed by midseason is like being stuck on a sailboat in the horse latitudes. You’re just not going anywhere for a while and that gives you a lot of time on your hands while you wait for things to improve.
You can add your voice to those of fans and pundits calling upon management to blow up the roster and start over. As a fan of a team which sucks on toast, you have every right to express your anger and disappointment. However, calling for those changes to happen RIGHT NOW! is a pointless and silly exercise.
After all, you want your horrible team to get back the best possible returns for players on the trade block, and to hire the best available coaches and management staff. You don’t want them quickly tearing down in a reckless manner, giving away your best trade pieces for poor returns, or rushing into hiring coaching and management staff when there could be better options available in the offseason.
The reality is that big changes usually don’t come at midseason in today’s salary-cap world. With the trade deadline less than six weeks away, your sucky team’s management will wait until the offseason to make significant moves. They’ll instead use the trade deadline to dump the pending free agents they can’t or won’t re-sign, hanging on to those players until as close to deadline day as possible in hopes of driving up their trade value.
It’s a long wait for the trade deadline, even longer for the offseason, but you have no choice except to be patient. Yes, your ticket and merchandise purchases fund the team, but you don’t get to make the decisions. And no offense, but judging by some of the comments I’ve read from fans suggesting trades, free-agent signings and staff hirings, it’s a damn good thing none of you are in position to make those decisions.
Perhaps a better way to express your disappointment is to just stop following your team for the rest of the season.
I know that’s anathema to those of you who consider yourselves die-hard fans of your favorite team, no matter how terrible they are. You believe in supporting your team through the good times and bad. The thought of being a “fair-weather fan” sickens you to your core.
That attitude makes sense if your club only occasionally suffers through a bad season or two. But what if you support a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in years? Or only once in the last decade? Or only once in nearly fifteen years? Are those teams truly worthy of such blind devotion?
I’m not saying you have to abandon that type of team entirely. But if they’re swimming in awfulness year after year with no end in sight, maybe it’s better if you just stop following them for the rest of the season once you know they have no realistic shot of making the playoffs. Return to them in the offseason, around the time of the NHL draft, and see what moves they’re making by then to improve themselves, then start each season with renewed hope that, this time, they’re finally heading in the right direction.
Some of you will disagree with that notion out of fear your club will relocate if you don’t come out and support them, buy their merchandise and follow them on television. Well, I’ve got news for you. They’re not moving. Oh, sure, there was a time, fifteen or twenty years ago, when the league was in expansion fever and keen to move teams in struggling markets to larger American-based ones.
But that fever has long passed. There’s few viable NHL markets left in North America and Europe remains merely a faraway dream. Of those few markets, the NHL wants to put expansion clubs there, not relocated ones. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his brain trust are committed to keeping franchises in their current locations. Sure, Atlanta moved to Winnipeg but that was an unusual circumstance born out of a dysfunctional ownership group that was a time bomb waiting to blow up. Look at how much time, effort and treasure the league has spent keeping the Coyotes in Arizona and the Panthers in Florida. One reason the NHL has revenue-sharing is to prop up its struggling franchises.
And if you really think a perennially awful team in a big market – like the Maple Leafs in Toronto – will threaten relocation if fans stop supporting the lousy product they’re icing, I want whatever it is you’re smoking.
I’m not saying you switch allegiance to another team. I’m suggesting you stop pouring good money after bad and stressing yourself out supporting a perennially bad team until such time they stop being lousy or give some indication they’re trying to improve. At the very least, it will certainly help you sleep better at night. When they improve, by all means go out and give them your full-throated support, as they’ll have earned it.
But if that’s not for you, then all that’s left is just trying to make the most of a bad situation. Accept the fact your team sucks, it’s sucked for a long time and will continue sucking for the foreseeable future. Start embracing them as “lovable losers.” Begin each season expecting them to miss the playoffs. If they’re actually in the hunt by midseason, you’ll be pleasantly surprised rather than bitterly disappointed.
You can also find suitable distractions to take your mind off your really, really bad NHL team. Remind yourself that baseball season begins in a couple of months. Start making plans for your spring and summer activities. Maybe you can cheer for your favorite NBA team, unless they suck too, in which case I suggest taking up a nice winter hobby like woodworking or constructing box girder bridges.
Yes, there’s a price to be paid for supporting a terrible NHL. It’s up to you to decide how much you’re willing to pay.