“Together We Can”: How hockey fans can influence the NHL labor negotiations

Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Sunil Agnihotri


While NHL owners and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) work towards a new collective bargaining agreement, a fan, Janne Makkonen of Finland, created and published a short video, entitled “Together We Can”, imploring hockey fans to work together to stop the impending lockout. The video serves as an excellent example of the participatory culture fan communities are immersed within, allowing creators such as this one to share their message to a massive audience. A collection of hockey highlights, mashed up with other cultural artifacts delivers the message that fans are significant to the game and the need to stop the lockout.

As of this writing, the video has received over 750,000 views on YouTube, with over 4,300 comments. The video has received press coverage and has been shared using various social media applications by fans as well as NHL players. Makkonen has even collected over 23,000 signatures for a petition posted on Change.org to stop the lockout. As great as the response has been to the idea of fans playing a role in stopping the lockout, it’s difficult to remain optimistic.

Harrison Mooney of Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog, cites fan participation as a barrier to have an impact on the lockout in his recent blog post entitled “Hockey fans: There is nothing you can do to prevent a lockout”.

“Of course, the issue all of these movements and videos and public protests have — on top of treating our right to NHL hockey like it’s inalienable — is they belie their own threat of action by showing how desperately fans care. When you care that much, you’re not going to follow through on a promise to walk away from the NHL cold turkey should they fail to reach an agreement in two weeks.

Don’t be ridiculous. You’re crackheads threatening to quit crack unless the price of crack comes down.”

Fans are clearly in a position of weakness, as there are limits to what they can do to make a difference. A number of websites (NHL Fan Association, You Have Two Weeks) and social media movements have emerged urging fans to sign petitions and boycott NHL products, the services of NHL sponsors and partners, as well as the other companies owned by NHL owners. New media is a great foundation for group action as communication technology can serve as a foundation for discussion and collaboration. But the websites and social media applications being used require more thought and effort to really make the impact that fans like Makkonen are hoping for.

Fellow Hockey in Society contributor E Martin Nolan summarized a common sentiment among fans  in his recent article, “The Fans are Assumed”.

“Shit, when they bring the game back, I’ll watch. Because I’m a fan, because I’m assumed. But let’s recognize that that assumed status also makes us into, to use Bobby Orr’s phrase following the last lockout, “collateral damage.”  And ain’t shit we can do about it but make spirited montage video clips and fill the comment sections with vitriol until they explode into a big flame of nothingness. And wait, we can wait.”

But there is always hope. In his book “Here Comes Everybody”, Clay Shirky (2008) uses various case studies to outline the critical components of any large scale project, including how to get people involved and how to leverage communication tools such as social media to drive change. The section about Promise, Tool, Bargain (Shirky, p. 260) serves as a model that can serve as a guide to any group, such as fans looking to prevent the NHL lockout. This concept can explain how communities of various sizes have cooperated and collaborated to break down barriers and achieve collective goals, such as the Arab Spring, the Ushahidi application and the infamous Vancouver Riot of 2011, (including the clean-up and the reporting of rioters to authorities). I would argue that although the fan movement to ensure there is hockey this fall may not equal the significance of overthrowing a tyrant in Egypt, similar characteristics and opportunities exist across various large scale movements.


The Promise refers to the reason why someone would join a group and is often the most difficult part about starting a group. In this case, why would fans want to work together to stop the lockout? The game of hockey is important to fans not only for its entertainment value, but for its cultural significance, especially here in Canada. But It can’t be assumed that all fans will work towards stopping the lockout. Fans can always direct their time, energy and money towards other sports or entertainment if the NHL cancels its season. Some fans may also feel they have little to no influence on the labor negotiations and not participate.

There are three ways, according to Shirky, to get people involved in group projects:

  1. Make joining the group easy.
  2. Create personal value for people to join.
  3. Subdivide the community, which would better accommodate the unique qualities and potential contributions of individuals.

For any hockey fans looking to start a movement, they’ll have to use tools and strategies that reduce the barriers to join. Groups will also need to harp on the significance of the game to fans, which is easier said than done as everyone has a different level of attachment to hockey. The video does talk about how the game belongs to fans, but more will need to be hashed out to get people involved. Subdividing the community doesn’t seem like a smart idea for a group trying to unite, but it’s critical to assign specific tasks to potential participants. What a group trying to stop the lockout could do is determine what traits are needed for the group to succeed and then find individuals who could fulfill the requirements. For example, finding people with a background in law or those who are experts in marketing and promotions could help the group, but only if the tasks are granular. The group could also subdivide the group based on how they’re impacted, such as those employed by NHL clubs or small business owners.


The Tool refers to the ‘social tool’ that potential participants of the group could use to achieve their collective goals. In the case of hockey fans, who are large in number and scattered around the world, social media applications and mobile technology appear to be the preferred tool of choice. As of today, the message carried by fans to stop the lockout can be found on YouTube, numerous blogs and news articles.

The personal value of the movement and the subdivision of the community will have a significant impact on what tool will be used. Until the movement figures out the Promise component, it remains difficult to assess what specific tools could/will work.


Bargain refers to what participants can expect and what is expected of someone who joins the group. Shirky argues that the Bargain is the most complex characteristic of the successful forming of groups using social tools, because it is “both less explicit than promise and tool, and it requires more input by the user” (Wikipedia). It’s this component that requires an agreement amongst the participants as to what is fair for all. Wikipedia, for example, asks for input from users, with the assurance that they will not sell the work to a third party. This sort of exchange is critical to the sustainability of the movement, but relies on the other two components, Promise and Tool, in order to develop.


Having a desire to stop the NHL season from being cancelled is a commendable initiative. Unfortunately, fans are in a difficult situation for a number of reasons. Joining the group seems simple enough because sharing, as Shirky points out, is the easiest part since the tools, such as Youtube, are easily accessible.

“You can think of group undertaking as a kind of ladder of activities, activities that are enabled or improved by social tools. The rungs on the ladder, in order of difficulty, are sharing, cooperation, and collective action. Sharing is one of the three activities that is enhanced through social tools. Sharing creates the fewest demands on the participants.” (Shirky, p. 49)

Where does it go from here? You have a great, impassioned message, viewed over 750,000 times, but how do fans really join the group?

Instead of putting down the goals of the video producer and hockey fans, I would recommend the group look to other successful large-scale initiatives for ideas. Recent democratic revolutions or infamous riots are good sources, but a more relatable project is one that has been undertaken by the hockey blog community. More specifically, they need to look at how hockey bloggers have altered the traditional media consumption model as they now play a greater role the creation and development of information about the game. Bloggers have successfully employed the Promise, Tool, Bargain model to conduct data analytics (i.e., hockey analytics), write articles and create new content for others to use. The two projects, stopping the lockout and developing hockey content, have different goals, but they both rely on a large collaborative community, as well as communication technology to push for major change. Fan blogs do a remarkable job achieving Shirky’s three concepts by making blogs easy to use, giving contributors credit for their work, and allowing fans to contribute as much or as little as they would like. The results has been a sustainable model of citizen journalism, that is now receiving the same attention as any mainstream media outlet.

If fans are serious about influencing the NHL labor negotiations, they’ll need to do more than just share articles and information. A starting point would be to assess the Promise, the Tool and the Bargain and determine the strengths and weaknesses of the movement.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin Press.

16 thoughts on ““Together We Can”: How hockey fans can influence the NHL labor negotiations

  1. I’m glad to see a perspective on this less depressing than my own, but I’m also not seeing any real hope here. It’s true that an online community has sprung up to promote things like analytics and other perspectives on hockey that are ignored by the mainstream sources, but you could also say that’s just another example of fans doing something off to the side and not really threatening the establishment (who can just observe and take the ideas they like from the free blogosphere and use it to draw readers and increase ad revenue). Meaning, the blogosphere does not offer a mechanism to attack or threaten the only thing either side in the labour dispute care about at present: money. What we volunteer on the side does not matter to them, and I’m at a loss as to how to answer your call at the end: how do we take the next step? What even is the next step? I’d like to think there is some parallel to social movements, but there’s also an incredibly important difference: social movements have much higher stakes. Hosni Mubarak was oppressing people; that’s in no way comparable to not being able to watch the NHL. So there’s no incentive to take the step that was taken in the Arab Spring, to put your neck on the line, because: whatever, we’re busy enough as it is and there’s plenty of movies out there to take our time up. As such, how would we ever gain leverage? Even if we were totally united to stop this lockout, how would we use that unity? The Makkonen video makes a moving pitch to unite, but it’s also not a coherent argument, and it’s unclear what it’s suggesting we do.

    Here’s as far as I get: if each team were owned by the people who fund them, the fans, the situation would be different. Then maybe all the things we feel would be more than just vibes that can’t touch the owners of our treasured product (meaning players and owners). I don’t disagree with the goal of Makkonen, and I don’t put it down. I agree, I just don’t see what difference it could possibly make. That’s my assessment of the weaknesses of the movement, I’d like to hear a suggestion about what the strengths are and how it might be used. It should be noted that a fan movement to end a lock out occurs naturally, which is something to think about, is a strength. But how to get over that money wall it just as naturally runs in to?

    • The reason I use Shirky’s Promise Tool Bargain model is to provide a way to really deconstruct the whole movement to stop the lockout. Initially, I was going to write about how useless these slick videos and petitions are because of the same reasons you cite here and in your blog post “The Fans are Assumed”. But I really wanted to put together a check list to at least give people a sense of what needs to be done to achieve the goals of a group.

      And by no means am I comparing the stakes involved in the “No NHL Lockout” movement to the Arab Spring. What I wanted to demonstrate was the key components a group requires to get things done. In the Arab Springs case, there was a strong commitment by the people, motivated by personal values and collective ideals. The biggest hurdle for hockey fans is defining that Promise component, which in my opinion, is near impossible because, as you put it, it runs naturally into the money wall and other barriers.

  2. Great post Sunil! I’m really glad you addressed this topic because, as you say, the anti-lockout fan movement thus far has been widely criticized for being ineffective yet, I think, is nonetheless very significant. I like your analogy about the way in which fan bloggers have shaped the media production/consumption of hockey – bloggers did not dismantle sport journalism nor did they completely rewrite the “rules of the game,” but they certainly have had a significant impact on how hockey media is produced and consumed. I think seeing fan movements in this more complex light is helpful, rather than seeing them as zero sum movements that are doomed to fail.

    • Thanks Mark! I just found it too easy to dismiss the whole movement. Aside from E Martin’s blog post, there was nothing really of substance to completely dismiss hockey fans who want to stop the lockout.

      The initial tone of my blog post was pretty cynical, but after making the connection to bloggers who have altered the production/consumption of hockey, I realized there are models to apply, regardless if they’re achievable or not.

      Perhaps the title of my blog post sounds a little too optimistic. But I did want to raise the point that our current environment, including the culture and the tools available, can support group formation and action. But it’s really up to the participants to decide what steps to take and how far to take it.

  3. Pondering this for a further day, I find myself coming back to the same sticking point: the unity of the fanbase is there, but it’s like we’re not even bringing knife and this is a gun fight. I think Sunilagni put it very well in the comment above: “there are models that apply, regardless if they’re achievable or not.” It’s intriguing that the model of an effective movement is there (the unity, the means to share our opinions, to spread awareness) but it hasn’t proven to be effective in any way. The owners know about us, and they obviously don’t fear us (and bet your ass they paid someone a lot to research our ability to take direct action against their spreadsheets).

    Would there be some way to publicly (like actual, not virtual, public) shame them?

    I was interested in Sunilagni’s discussion of the Arab Spring and the Vancouver riots. Neither totally apply, but both might offer ideas. After all, no one thought a people’s protest could bring down Mubarak, and while this is a different beast, the same prinicple would apply: let’s not count ourselves out before really weighing our options. And the with the Vancouver riots, we obviously don’t want to immulate those, but while incoherent, random and mean, that was a kind of collective fan action (again, one that did have an at all laudable goal, if a goal it had at all).

    But if we put those two together, an online-organized group unified behind the statement: “even if we can’t stop you, we want to make you feel shameful” (this would be the Arab Spring equivilant, gathering force behind a goal) combined with the kind of fan gathering that led to the Vancouver riots (with out the riots), then maybe the owners could turn a little red in the face (but aren’t billionaires always red in the face?).

    That’s the closest I’ve come to thinking there’s any direction in which to push all this frustration.

    • And one more thing, I’m thinking it’s not the promise that we’re missing, but the tool. People are bought into the idea of ending a lockout, but it’s somehow garnering the social media that is the problem.

      • By suggesting hockey fans should try to shame the owner’s, you’re giving the movement to stop the lockout a clear purpose, something lacking in Makkonen’s “Together We Can” and other websites. I like the idea of somehow shaming the owner’s, or even the NHLPA, but also delivering a message that fans are unified and hold some power.

        But rather than demonstrating it, which can be effective, hockey fans need to take some real action and make an impact. One idea that pops to mind was inspired by what Oilers fans did when former coach Craig MacTavish was fined $10,000 by the NHL for calling the referees of one particular game blind (http://www.cbc.ca/sports/story/2006/11/04/oilers-mactavish-fined.html?ref=rss). Fans raised the money to pay for the fine, but instead, it was donated to a charity, I believe, for the visually impaired.

        Random idea, but why not figure out how much money the two sides are fighting over, and use that amount to set a goal for raising money. Now, I know if the cost is in the billions, it’ll be tough. But using the money their fighting over to benefit a charity or a cause such as the You Can Play program could demonstrate how important fans are and what they’re capable of doing. Again, this is just an idea, and I’m sure there are more out there.

        And yes, the tool has yet to be developed to take action. So far social media has done well spreading the message, but it’ll be a wasted effort if the right tool isn’t in place to do something.

  4. Something else just came to mind.

    I think it’s safe to say the owners and the NHLPA view the fan as the financial supporter of the NHL. There’s definitely the local governments and the sponsors who invest in the teams. But really, it’s the fans who fill the stands, watch the game on TV and buy merchandise that really put the money into the game.

    Now, if instead of seeing the fans as the consumer in this labor negotiations, we view them as the producers they’ve demonstrated to be, could we come up with other ways that fans can take action? When I mean producers, I refer to the contributions they make to the game in the form of blogs, cultural artefacts and mashups. For example, fans who compile their own video highlights, fitted with digital effects and music to share with friends. Or those who create a coffee table, made up of old hockey sticks. What seems like examples of participatory culture, could really be examples of the indirect revenue fans bring to a game. Examples like those I’ve listed could be promotional items, for instance, that could draw in new fans.

    If we change the role fans play in the game, from simple consumers, to more active producers and participants of content, we have a couple more things fans can do to end the lockout.

    They could stop creating and sharing new content.

    Or, they could continue creating content, but for other hockey leagues or sports. Obviously, easier said than done, but it could help promote other hockey leagues such as the AHL or KHL. We know fans are an engaged bunch and their creativity will be expressed in some form. But imagine their work being used to demonstrate their ability to control the league’s popularity and financial success.

  5. While I still can’t shake the feeling that the blogosphere that has developed around hockey, and outside the mainstream, is impressive, but that it is also limited to beating around the bush (as the real money at stake occurs inside the bush), I think there’s something to be done with it. I like the idea of supporting other leagues, and the there is the fact that the KHL could very well benefit from this lockout (supporting the KHL might not be much better than supporting the NHL though, I’m not sure).

    But, instead of abandoning our coverage of the NHL, I’d like to turn it around on them, make it attack. What I’m thinking is there needs to be a demonstration at the gates of the stadiums, grotesque effigies of Bettman, a burning R and B (for Rogers and Bell), and a general building up and unifying of frustration. If we do that, then any boycott, as has been suggested by the Barnstormer:


    or here: https://www.facebook.com/events/159120714211945/

  6. Really interesting discussion.

    I’m not sure if a social movement on the part of the fans is the relevant issue. I know that it’s hard to discuss the NHL lockout as a labour dispute when both sides are making so much money, but if we look at it as a labour dispute then I think we should also question who benefits from rhetoric around victimized fans. It seems that in this lock out there is more animosity towards the owners, but similar to the last lock out I think the longer it goes the more players will be demonized. Fans need their hockey, you already make millions, just play the game. I think it’s similar to teacher strikes and TA strikes in which the government focuses on the inconvenience that parents, children, and students face as opposed to the actual working conditions of employees. Again, it’s hard to do this in hockey when both sides are making big money.

    I think any substantial social movement would have to require the players to recognize the power they hold. Martin suggested teams owned by the people who fund them (i.e. fans), but what about player-owned teams/leagues. Similar to when factories shut down and workers decide to continue manufacturing as a collective.

    Sunil mentioned the idea of fans engaging with other leagues like the KHL and AHL, but what if players agreed on a massive exodus from the NHL and North America. If all the players went to play in Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Czech Republic etc, I wonder if fans would simply shift to watching European hockey, like soccer fans in US/Canada watch European soccer.

    • In my opinion, the players were demonized right from the start of the last lockout. The main argument the owners had, of evening the playing field and supporting “small market” teams, got the support of fans right away. Owners came across as being in the fan’s corner. At least that’s how it was played out in Edmonton, where for year’s we watched star players leave for more money elsewhere. Once the lockout ended in 2006, the Oilers signed Chris Pronger and Mike Peca, two players we couldn’t imagine signing in Edmonton prior to that lockout.

      The problem with this lockout is the fans are being told by the owners and the NHLPA that they’re important, but no action is really being taken to backup those claims. Whereas the last lockout talked allowing small market teams and their fans to have a chance competing against the mega markets like New York, Detroit etc, this years lockout is more about how to split the revenue generated by fans.

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  8. Have to add a quote from an article by Ellen Etchingham of the Backhand Shelf blog. Something else to think about when looking at fan protests.

    “By protesting, in whatever way we do it, we’re remaking ourselves individually and our community as a whole in a way that is more satisfying to us. We’re not changing the NHL, but we’re changing the way we experience the NHL, and the way we experience the lockout. With all this useless action, we’re giving each other things to talk about and read about, ideas to argue over, events to go to, and that alone is reason enough to side with the do-somethings against the do-nothings. I’d rather be a member of a hockey community where people express themselves. Most of what we-the-people participate in isn’t NHL-created culture, it’s fan-created culture, and a fan culture where people heckle Bettman and make Youtube montages and Occupy the NHL store is a waaaaaaay more fun culture to be part of than one where everyone just shrugs and says, we can’t do anything, wake me when it’s over. You might argue with me about whether or not complacency is bad for the soul, but hopefully we can all agree that it’s dreadfully boring.”

    Etchingham, E. (2012, October 12). On the virtues of useless action. Backhand Shelf. Retrieved from http://blogs.thescore.com/nhl/2012/10/12/on-the-virtues-of-useless-action

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