Bamboozled: Devils try to ease labor pains

BB brandingThe ice is no longer reserved for Disney princesses and swashbuckling heros, and Zambonis can finally get back to their real work.

After a 113-day labor dispute that cut the season in half, the National Hockey League season started this month.

Most hockey fans were happy.

Charles and Michelle Vinicombe, season ticket holders for the Devils since the team moved to Newark, were not.

Before the lockout, the Bridgewater couple upgraded their pair of season tickets, which would now cost $53 per ticket per game each.

“Like all NHL fans, we were disgusted with the labor dispute and the greed that caused it,” said Charles Vinicombe, 50, in a Jan. 9 e-mail, 10 days before the puck would drop in the first game. “In our view, if the lockout did not end and there were no games by the beginning of December, we considered it a lost season.”

But players and the league finally came to terms and the schedule was reduced to only 48 games, starting Jan. 19.

12813When the lockout was resolved, the Vinicombes thought that a partial season “that does not start until the end of January and that will go almost until the Fourth of July with the Stanley Cup Finals was absurd.”

They thought the NHL should have just canceled the season.

He said between tickets, food, parking and gas, each game cost the couple about $200. The couple didn’t think the cost was worth it with the shortened season.

Vinicombe said he and his wife kept reading media accounts of how the owners and players would now have to deal with fan disinterest and dissatisfaction, and how they were going to make things right.

Given their feelings, the Vinicombes contacted the Devils on Jan. 9, with what they thought was a simple and fair request.

“We assumed that they would be flexible and want to make things right by their fans,” he said. “In our view, making things right for us was allowing season ticket holders to opt out of what they might view as a bogus partial season. ”

The couple didn’t want to relinquish their tickets for good. Just for this season.

The Devils said no.

“We were stunned when the Devils basically told us to buzz off and that you are stuck with the tickets,” said Vinicombe, who calls himself a hardcore fan.

They followed up with a letter, to no avail. Calling the team’s no-refund policy a “money grab and bait-and-switch by the NHL,” Vinicombe was furious.

That’s when his story came to Bamboozled.

We reviewed a series of e-mails between Vinicombe and the Devils, and several items stand out.

There’s the copy of an e-mail sent to season ticket holders on Sept. 20, before anyone knew how long the labor dispute would last.

It explained the choices fans had so they wouldn’t pay for games that were canceled.

“Option A: Keep Money On Account And Receive Interest” would allow fans to receive a credit for any canceled games, plus 2 percent interest. The balance of that account could be used for future tickets. This would be the default option if a fan didn’t notify the team that he wanted something different.

“Option B: Request A Refund For Canceled Games” would allow fans to request a refund for canceled games during whatever month the fan completed the form.

The Vinicombes took Option B.

Two other documents, “Ticket License Payment Form” and “Full Season Ticket Subscription,” detailed the costs and payment plan options.

Both documents clearly stated tickets were nonrefundable, so the Vinicombes agreed to the no-refund policy when they signed up to buy tickets.

We still reached out to the Devils to see if the team would reconsider the policy for these fans.

“Our policy on refunds matches virtually every one of the other 129 major league teams, all of whom have had to deal with missed games over the last few decades,” said spokesman Bob Sommer, who agreed to take a closer look at the case.

On Jan. 14, Vinicombe received a phone call from Lou Lamoriello, the CEO and general manager of the Devils.

The two played phone tag, finally speaking Jan. 16.

“I have to say he is a very classy guy and a true gentleman. I think his heart is in the right place,” Vinicombe said.

Lamoriello had a copy of the couple’s letter, and he countered some of Vinicombe’s concerns, Vinicombe said.

On Vinicombe’s disappointment with the shortened season, Lamoriello reminded him that 1995 was a shortened season because of a strike, and the Devils won the Stanley Cup that year.

Vinicombe had also voiced concerns about the physical shape of the players given the lack of games.

“He said that he had personally been at practices and felt the players were in good condition and the team would offer fans a good experience this year,” he said. “He said he was working hard at improving the team and there would be an announcement later today that one of the key players is being signed by the Devils to a long-term deal.”

(That turned out to be Travis Zajac.)

Vinicombe said he told Lamoriello that he felt that the NHL and the Devils should be more flexible and give season ticket holders the ability to opt out of the shortened season.

That’s when Lamoriello invited the Vinicombes to stop by and visit his executive box at the sold-out Jan. 22 season home opener, Vinicombe said.

“Although I didn’t ultimately get what I was originally looking for, which was the ability to opt out of this season, I am satisfied with the result, which was to have a meaningful conversation and forum to express my concerns to the organization,” Vinicombe said. “I can’t think of any other sports executives that would care enough to directly reach out to fans who had expressed some dissatisfaction over the situation.”

Two days later, the Devils sent an e-mail to all season ticket holders with a “permanent gesture of our appreciation.”

Each account holder would receive a personal brick in Championship Plaza, on which the fan could have any name inscribed. There were additional offers, including some free tickets to games and to the 2013 NHL Draft, discounts in stores, and even a donation to a Sandy charity by the Devils in each season ticket holder’s name.

Bamboozled deals with a lot of consumer complaints of all kinds. When we think a company or organization is wrong, we say so. But it goes both ways. Not every consumer who has a complaint is correct.

In this case, while the frustration of the Vinicombes was clear, so was the no-refund policy, which was stated in several places. Of course, few fans imagined the labor dispute would last as long as it did, and it’s not uncommon for all of us to gloss over the fine print because we don’t think there will be a problem down the road.

But that’s why the fine print is there. That’s why the lawyers are paid the big bucks. To cover all contingencies.

So we as consumers can’t sign contracts and then disagree with the terms if a contingency we never imagined comes to pass.

While some fans continue to be angry about the labor dispute — and say they were Bamboozled, in fact — the contract is the contract is the contract.

Kudos to the Devils for being willing to talk to this fan, even if the two sides would agree to disagree. And it can’t be denied that the team certainly — even if just for public relations reasons — is making an effort to keep fans happy.

Is this the time to mention that I’m a Rangers fan?