On February 16, the National Hockey League became the first North American pro sports league to cancel an entire season over a work stoppage.
That ignominy alone is a nightmare, but it's hardly the league's biggest PR penalty.
Two weeks ago, all reports had players and owners $6.5 million apart on a salary cap. A deal seemed to be near, but the chasm between the two sides was larger than anticipated, and Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner, cancelled the season.
On February 18, fans' dreams were resuscitated when many reputable outlets reported that the season was about to be saved, as the players and owners were both ready to accept a $45 million cap. Even the iconic Wayne Gretzky appeared at a February 19 negotiation, which he surely wouldn't have done if he didn't think there was a deal to be sealed.
But once again, in Bettman's words, fans were "set up." Some called it an "embarrassment." Please. Losing a season is embarrassing. Giving your dwindling fan base false hope while publicly demonstrating neither side was 100% committed to reaching an agreement was a debacle.
More important, it was a betrayal of trust, which is damage no entity can afford. This squandering of goodwill will cost the league and players far more than the dollar amounts being thrown around.
The league has financial problems. As such, fans can grudgingly justify the lockout if it prompts a sensible agreement between honest parties looking to salvage a sport. But for a league long lauded for its media relations (PRWeek, September 23, 2002), these shenanigans are highly damaging. This deception, more than the work stoppage itself, is why the NHL can expect a very icy reception - if it gets one at all - when it returns.