Can the NHL Be Fixed?

Posted: October 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

ImageThe man on the left is Gary Bettman, Commissioner of the National Hockey League. The man to his right, Donald Fehr, is the Executive Director of the NHL Players Association. With the league currently mired in a potentially season ending lockout, these are the men whose heads belong on a stick in the minds of the NHL’s collective fan base.

Just eight years ago, the NHL lost the entire 2004-2005 season due to a labor dispute. That coming ten years after half of the 1994-1995 season was suspended for the same reason. All of this has come under Bettman’s watch. So, why do NHL fans put up with it? Our love for the game of hockey is one thing. But, there are always alternatives. The AHL, ECHL, CHL, KHL, and other foreign leagues offer competitive hockey at a fraction of the price to see NHL games. As billionaire owners quarrel with millionaire players, the fans are left out to dry. But, the NHL isn’t concerned. They believe that, much like in 2005, the fans will come back. Like picking the Eagles to cover against an 0-5 team, I think that is a bad bet to make.

For one, the players themselves have shown inclinations to not return to North America if they don’t get their way. Washington Capitals’ superstar LW Alexander Ovechkin stated that unless he is paid his full salary for the lost season, he will remain in Russia, his home country. While this may just be posturing by an overpaid and dimwitted player, it shows that the NHL is not holding all of the cards. 

The owners, meanwhile, desperately want salaries to go down. It has been reported that at least 25 teams lost money last season as a result of a rising salary cap and rocketing salaries. Of course, the argument can be made that the owners dug their own grave by signing those contracts. But, since when were rich people held accountable for their failures in this country? It is really not surprising that so many teams have been losing money. Southern franchises like Phoenix and Tampa Bay are almost forced to give away tickets in order to keep a packed house. In Philadelphia or New York, the cheapest tickets are usually at least $80-90. In Tampa Bay, a family of four can get four tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas, and four programs for $70. A smorgasbord of goodies for less than the price of one ticket in a valuable market. This is the problem with the NHL. 

Truth be told, there is no easy solution. Contraction/relocation is one possible way out of this financial mess. But, you’d have to first convince Bettman that his 1990’s expansion to the south was a failure. Good luck with that. You would then have to find enough successful hockey markets and capable venues in those markets to house the failing franchises. Teams such as Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Florida, Nashville, Dallas (more related to ownership than the market size), and Columbus are all struggling to find their niche in their home markets. 

Right now, the most viable cities for relocation include: Hamilton, ON, Seattle, WA, Quebec City, QB, or another team in Toronto. Former NHL markets that could also be considered include Hartford, CT and Kansas City, MO. But, their past failures and relatively small market size suggest that they’re longshots. 

Of the cities listed above, the most likely destinations for any team are Quebec City and Hamilton. Since the Nordiques bolted Quebec for Colorado in 1995, the citizens have been yearning for a return. So much so that they have begun building a new arena set to open in 2015. It would not surprise anyone to see Phoenix move to Quebec by that time. 

In the end, it is going to take a lot more than just relocating a few fledgling markets to bring the NHL back from the dead. It will take new leadership, a new mindset, and a willingness to compromise that seems like a lost art in today’s confrontational age.

 

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