My NHL “Fix”

Watching game five of the playoff series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators reaffirmed what the recent USA vs. Canada games of the Vancouver Olympics told us: the game of hockey is, simply put, awesome. (I’ll spare you the specifics of that game since you are perfectly capable of clicking the above link.)

I think it’s important to note that the game doesn’t need to be overhauled or changed. Watching games like these really tells us that there is absolutely nothing that could make hockey any more exciting. Yet there is another fact that is hard to ignore: the NHL is not all that popular in the United States of America. So what’s the problem?

I’ll give you an answer that really doesn’t provide a SOLUTION at all … the answer is that there really is NO WAY to make the NHL more popular in the United States. And I think it’s high time that the NHL embraces its esotericism.

If you listen to any of the nationally syndicated radio sports talk shows, you’ll notice the hosts will always balk at even the thought of spending more than 30 seconds on NHL discussion. That’s because they know the whole country is tuned in, and they’d lose the attention of about half their listening audience with NHL talk. But I’ll get to that in a minute …

Sure, the NHL doesn’t have the best TV exposure. But I remember the days when FOX really gave it a go. They pushed the NHL on their network seemingly all the time. Did that help it become more popular? I think your answer lies in the fact that you won’t find many games on FOX any longer (and the lockout certainly didn’t help, either). You’ll see some sporadic games on network TV or on ESPN, but they’re really few and far between. The vast majority are broadcast through the lowly Versus Network (which I don’t even get in my own home).

So what do I think the NHL should do? Just maintain a happy status quo forever? Heck no! I advocate progress through regression! In a sense.

What the league needs to do is to TRIM THE FAT. Get rid of these stupid franchises that are in markets that don’t care about hockey. I’ll give the league this: it was a noble experiment. Its hypothesis was that the game is so great, people living in areas that hadn’t responded well to hockey (or even had much of a chance to even PLAY the game) in the past would have no choice but to embrace it because the game is so undeniably awesome! It even worked in a market or two (see: Dallas, Colorado).

But the league failed to consider one thing. Not everyone can recognize a game for its awesomeness. In fact, the exact opposite may even occur. Case in point: NASCAR. There is no explanation for it. It just is what it is.

But trimming the fat isn’t quite ALL about cutting the league off at the Mason-Dixon line (though it’s close). Eliminating teams from the league would make the talent pool all that much better (and I suppose it’d improve the talent pool in the minor league system, too).

It’s also about cutting some of the dead weight teams in markets that do (at least kinda) care. I’m willing to give a couple of these teams the boot, too. But I won’t be drastic. I have SOME sense of tradition. The Edmonton Oilers are safe. (Don’t get rid of any more Canadian teams.) So are the St. Louis Blues. These teams may be in small(er) markets, but they’ve got some history to them, and their fans have demonstrated an unshakable loyalty.

I propose that the following TEN TEAMS should be cut from the NHL. Don’t worry; I’ll explain a little.

All of you. Good bye. Don’t let the door hit you.

At first, I am a little apprehensive about cutting some Stanley Cup winners like the Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes or Tampa Bay Lightning. Or multiple-time winners like the New York Islanders. Or current contenders like the San Jose Sharks.

But then I think: if these teams weren’t around (With the exception of the Islanders. More on why they should go in a bit.), wouldn’t it have been that much better if cities that ACTUALLY LIKE hockey got to enjoy the successes?

As for teams like the Phoenix Coyotes, the Atlanta Thrashers, the Nashville Predators, the Columbus Blue Jackets or the Florida Panthers, however, I have no remorse. You five get the axe without a tear being shed.

Seriously, I bet you couldn’t get 5% of Americans to even recognize these five low-life squads as being professional hockey franchises. Perhaps it would be lower than 1%. Even people in their home cities don’t seem care all that much. This season, Phoenix was 30th of 30 in attendance. Atlanta was 27th out of 30, Columbus was 22nd, Florida was 25th and Nashville was 26th.

How about the values of each team? According to Forbes, we’ve got the usual suspects as the bottom feeders. Phoenix and Atlanta are the two lowest valued teams. Columbus is 25th, Florida is 26th, and Nashville is 27th. The Florida Panthers have an operating income of a cool -$13.6 million, while the operating income of the Phoenix Coyotes is even more in the red at -$18.5 million.

The New York Islanders, I am sorry to say, are valued at 28th of 30 in the league, and their attendance is 29th. Given that they share a market with the MUCH more popular New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils (not to mention being close to another market with the very popular Philadelphia Flyers), I see no choice but to come to the decision that the franchise’s four championships and complete domination of the early ’80s are not reason enough to save the franchise. I know there’s a fan base that would be insanely upset, but the sad fact is that said fan base is too small to matter, and the fans are in such a market that they still have easy access to hockey.

As for the other teams (Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks), I just go back to the fact that your market doesn’t care about the sport. And your team doesn’t make enough money for the league for it to matter. The NHL needs to cater to its areas of strength to survive and thrive, and you ain’t one of ’em.

Not that a single game should necessarily be the definitive barometer, but seriously: if you didn’t watch the Olympic Gold Medal game between the U.S.A. and Canada, when the F*%@ are you ever going to watch hockey?! This was perhaps the biggest event for the sport in any of our lifetime. Check out the numbers in this article by Robert Seidman. As he points out, the game AVERAGED 16.6 million Canadian viewers at any one time during the game. Given that the total population of Canada is about 33.3 million, THAT’S NEARLY HALF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY WATCHING. I’d say that’s pretty good evidence that the game was a wee bit of an event. And it’s another reason why I don’t think anymore Canadian teams should go anywhere.

Directly from Seidman’s article:

Top 25 Metered Markets for USA-Canada Olympic Gold Medal Hockey Game:

1. Buffalo, 32.6/51
2. Pittsburgh, 31.9/50
3. Detroit, 26.9/47
4. Minneapolis, 26.4/53
5. Milwaukee, 24.5/43
6. Boston, 24.1/46
7. Chicago, 23.5/41
8. Columbus, 22.3/37
9. Denver, 22.2/42
10. Philadelphia, 20.9/35
11. West Palm Beach, 20.3/33
12. Kansas City, 19.5/35
13. St. Louis, 19.4/39
14. Seattle, 19.3/45
15. Cincinnati, 19.2/31
16. New York, 19.0/36
17. Hartford, 18.5/30
18. Providence, 18.4/34
T19. Salt Lake City, 18.3/38
T19. Cleveland, 18.3/32
T21. Washington, D.C., 18.1/33
T21. Baltimore, 18.1/32
23. Ft. Myers, 18.0/34
T24. Austin, 17.1/34
T24. Indianapolis, 17.1/29

This isn’t sheer numbers, it’s essentially percentages. So all cities within the U.S. are on a level playing field. In general, what cities are on here? Northern cities. That care about hockey. Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minneapolis … There are no North or South Carolina cities. No California cities.

There are some cities that don’t have franchises. But pretty much all of those are too small to be able to carry a franchise at this point. Columbus, Ohio is on there. So are a few cities in Florida. But as we’ve seen with some numbers above, that doesn’t translate to attendance numbers or top dollar in those markets.

Part of me wants to say: “Let’s just turn back the clock! Bring back the Hartford Whalers! The Winnipeg Jets! The Quebec Nordiques!” These were some COOL teams in hockey hotbeds. But I’m willing to be at least little rational. If the teams were working out well for themselves and for the league, I can accept that the Whalers wouldn’t have become the Hurricanes. The Jets wouldn’t have become the Coyotes, and the Nordiques wouldn’t have moved southwest to become the Colorado Avalanche.

I also can recognize why the league may still need to exist in a COUPLE markets where hockey isn’t all that popular. The Los Angeles market is the second-largest in the country. You’ve got to have at least a little presence there. The Kings have been there since 1967. They’re not losing money. They get to stay.

But let’s not get carried away. THE DUCKS? As in the MIGHTY DUCKS? You were named after an awful Disney movie. And I don’t buy that Anaheim is autonomous from Los Angeles as far as being a sports market. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim say hi. In short: L.A., you’re big enough that we need to put a hockey team there. But we don’t need two. Especially when one is DUMB.

Dallas is the fourth-largest market. The Stars have been successful, and they’re the eighth-highest valued team in the league. So, Dallas, while you can’t make ice, I guess you can stay.

I will say, though, that Dallas needs to modify its name. It’s undeniable that the Minnesota North Stars had one of the best names in the game. They also had a fan base that was hungry enough for hockey (and had the cash to back it up), that it made sense for the NHL to put a franchise back in hockey haven Minnesota after the owners picked up and left for Dallas, taking the Stars name with them.

But the new Minnesota franchise did make a major naming mistake. The Wild?! TERRIBLE NAME. Good God, put the “Wild” moniker out of its misery and allow Minnesota to reclaim the North Stars name. I bet the fans would be overwhelmingly in favor of it. And to help further discern between the old and new Stars, we’ll tack on another word to the Dallas team. They can be the Lone Stars. Their fans would probably be for that too. It works out just fine in baseball with the White Sox and the Red Sox. Make it so.

So where does that leave us? What does my league look like? It looks like this … and you’ll notice that in a league of Lady Byngs, Calders and Vezinas, I’m bringing back some of the esoteric conference structure/naming that made the NHL cool before it decided to try to stick boring-ass teams like Nashville and Phoenix into boring-ass divisions like the Central and the Pacific.

WALES CONFERENCE

Adams Division
Montreal Canadiens
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Ottawa Senators
Minnesota North Stars

Patrick Division
New York Rangers
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
Washington Capitals
New Jersey Devils

CAMPBELL CONFERENCE

Norris Division
Toronto Maple Leafs
Detroit Red Wings
Chicago Blackhawks
St. Louis Blues
Dallas Lone Stars

Smythe Division
Los Angeles Kings
Vancouver Canucks
Edmonton Oilers
Calgary Flames
Colorado Avalanche

Yep. That just feels better. It is kind of too bad not having the North Stars in the Norris, but now that we’ve got to fit Dallas and Colorado into spots that somewhat make sense, the North Stars had to find a home in the Adams Division.

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