After more than 80 days of the National Hockey League (NHL) lockout, it appeared earlier this week that things were finally looking up for the fans. Long discussions between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) had both sides cautiously optimistic that they may finally be on the way to a compromise. But yesterday, the fleeting glimmer of hope returned to familiar frustration after yet another setback in negotiations.

The cancellation so far of a third of the regular hockey season has already caused serious repercussions. In addition to the obvious effects on the teams and players, the lockout has wreaked financial havoc on non-league-owned arenas, which have reportedly seen a significant loss in expected annual revenues and have been forced to lay off employees. Bars and restaurants nearby the arenas have also noted significant decreases in business. North American distributor Molson Coors’ Canadian sales have even taken a financial hit and the company claims that it will seek compensation from the NHL upon the lockout’s resolution.

However, it seems in the midst of the discussions, NHL fans may be suffering the most. Obviously displeased with losing a third of the NHL season and scared at the potential threat of no season at all, they are the most important audience with which both the league and the players’ association should be working to communicate. From a crisis PR perspective, it has been intriguing to observe the NHL and the NHLPA approach fan communication from very different angles.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has reportedly been enforcing a policy that prevents owners and league employees from talking about the ongoing labor negotiations. While it is certainly understandable that the league wants control over what information is being publicly distributed from its representatives, the lack of any communication means they are also not conveying their side of the story to distraught fans. Interestingly, it was revealed this week that the NHL has begun conducting focus groups to strategize what sort of PR strategy they should incorporate into their overall collective bargaining agreement strategy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the NHLPA has from day one been pursuing very aggressive, direct engagement campaigns to garner support from the fans.  The association and individual players have taken to social media to explain their perspectives of the situation and even to criticize the league. In an example of their social media savvy, the NHLPA has utilized YouTube to share nostalgic, spirited videos suggesting that the players want to get back to the season as much as the fans.

In the end, the majority of fans probably don’t care too deeply about who is right or wrong, they just want the games to resume. However, taking the time to win their approval at this critical time could trigger a chain of events that influence the current negotiations. In addition, winning over the hearts and minds of the fans will almost certainly impact how they perceive what is taking place now and how they will recall this latest saga once both sides stop dropping the gloves and this hockey crisis has been resolved.  Time will tell who will emerge as the victor from the NHL hockey lockout PR brawl.  However, Red Banyan Group predicts that the side that ultimately “wins” will be the one whose PR strategy involves communicating directly with the fans through all available channels and driving home fact-based arguments that also appeal to their emotions.