With continued reports that the Phoenix Coyotes are losing money, and with a Globe and Mail report stating that at least 11 out of the 30 NHL clubs lost money during the 2007-2008 season, it's time the NHL took a bold step as the world heads towards the looming economic crisis.
Contraction may be a dirty little word for the NHL and Gary Bettman, but it is something that can no longer be ignored, for the health of the NHL, as well as other pro hockey leagues.
With teams such as the Phoenix Coyotes potentially facing crippling losses at the end of this season, it leaves many wondering how they could be economically viable in upcoming seasons.
With the team on the verge, according to the Globe and Mail report, of losing between $25-35 million dollars, the NHL has many questions it must ask itself in the coming years:
- Where does hockey fit in the North American landscape?
- How economically viable does the league believe it will be?
- Which markets work?
It is clear that hockey is a niche sport within the North American sports hierarchy. It does not have the "Sunday ritual", like football. It can be perceived boring by the basketball crowd. It is also not "America's pastime", like baseball is.
Hockey has primarily settled itself as a northern sport. Tradition, more than anything dictates so.
Canada and the northern United States have embraced all aspects of hockey, from the 6 a.m. practice to playing outdoors during the winter time. It is a tradition that is stable in these parts, and will continue to be.
When the NHL started to expand in 1967, its goals were much like the goals of other professional sports leagues at the time: to cash in on television rights.
To a certain extent, it did so in the early part of the 1970s, and markets such as Los Angeles, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Minnesota embraced hockey and its culture.
Each sport in North America has tried its luck in markets that it forecast it would do well in; or in some cases, let an owner do what they wanted to do with their franchise.
For instance, the NBA has tried its luck in markets such as Buffalo, Vancouver, and San Diego; to very little success.
Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders, moved his team freely between Los Angeles and Oakland, to the dismay of many fans.
The NHL, in the 31 years since its initial expansion, has clearly found which markets have embraced the NHL, and which haven't.
How Could Contraction be Beneficial?
It these coming economic times, downsizing will become the norm. Companies will become more efficient.
The NHL should follow the model of corporate America and create a stable economic future for itself. It needs to downsize.
If the NHL, for instance, were to downsize from 30 to 26 teams, the league would see an increase in skill and athleticism in its players. The skill set would dramatically improve on each team, depending of course on how coaches would intend on using those players.
Although the NHL is already a highly competitive league, parity would be even greater league-wide, where perhaps final games in the season could depend on playoff berths, something the NHL hasn't seen since the Original Six.
Apart from league wide parity and improved skill, the NHL's downsizing could also benefit its feeder leagues and Major Junior hockey in Canada.
The AHL, the NHL's primary minor league, has long been a staging ground for many future NHL stars. Should the league downsize, its talent level would also increase.
Outside of, once again, better quality hockey, the AHL would perhaps finally establish itself in mid-level markets, borderline markets still searching for an NHL team.
Cities such as Hamilton, Milwaukee, Hartford, and Winnipeg; who all currently harbor AHL teams, have long been rumoured to be searching for an NHL team. Should the NHL downsize, there would no longer be a need for relocation or expansion. These cities could finally, perhaps, identify with their AHL teams. Especially Hamilton.
Major Junior hockey within the three leagues in Canada, as well as NCAA hockey in the States may see a boost in longevity for certain star players.
Instead of players perhaps leaving the year they are drafted, teams could milk the system a little longer and truly develop their players.
Imagine if Steven Stamkos could get an extra year of junior, as well as a year in the AHL instead of being rushed foolishly by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With the skill level raised throughout all of the minor leagues, hockey could see a rebirth on the local level.
Who To Contract?
The new goal of the NHL should be to establish itself within the markets that they know work, therefore the northern United States and Canada.
The six Canadian teams are by far some of the strongest revenue-wise in the league. The Rangers, Flyers, Capitals, Bruins, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Penguins, and Sabres are all well established in their respective cities and have, save for the last two, strong and stable ownership.
Markets, such as Dallas, Anaheim, San Jose, and Los Angeles are working well in non-traditional hockey markets.
Columbus and Minnesota have been two of the NHL's stronger expansion franchises in the last 15 years, and their respective futures in their cities look bright.
Carolina, Tampa Bay, the Islanders, and the Devils have all won cups, and even though their fan base is dwindling and attendance is low in certain of these, history should guarantee their safety and security in their respective cities.
These 26 teams have all established themselves in viable hockey markets. Which leaves us with four possible candidates for retraction: Atlanta, Florida, Nashville, and Phoenix.
Although it could be argued that these teams have a chance to succeed in their respective markets, tradition dictates otherwise. The NHL, when all has been said and done, have failed in their Southern ventures.
By ridding itself of these franchises, the NHL sets itself up to succeed in its traditional markets, its core strengths, and even do there is a lot of money to be had in expansion, the NHL needs to re-establish itself with its core American base, in the northern part of the country, before it committees once again to expansion.
What To Do With the Players?
A waiver draft is the easiest way to settle the problems arising from retraction. A waiver draft, conducted perhaps like the entry draft where the last place team gets first pick, could be a practical decision for the NHL.
Would a team, such as the Islanders if it were to take place today, secure its present success with someone like Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta? Or would they perhaps build for the future by taking Peter Mueller from the Coyotes.
The networks, at least in Canada, would make a whole week out of it.
If the NHL were to retract, it would perhaps be saving itself from pending doom.
As leagues such as the WNBA and the Arena Football League start to fold, and with the economic outlook still predicting gloom and doom, hockey needs to start to realize its professional place in the spectrum of sport.
With better and more skillful players, stronger markets, and stronger interest in the game, there is no reason not to believe that the NHL could rebuild its status as a respectable sport in the United States, and perhaps through that it will gain what it has always been searching for: the elusive American fan.