Why Contraction—Not Expansion—Should Be on the NHL's Agenda

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Why Contraction—Not Expansion—Should Be on the NHL's Agenda
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

With the NHL enjoying some record-breaking numbers in the U.S. and certainly showing signs of an enlivened pulse on American television—that’s right, cable network Versus finally cracked the top spot for most-watched channel last Tuesday night when the Pittsburgh Penguins routed the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in Game Three—the hockey news wire has somewhat made a digression away from the intensity of the best-of-seven series.

It’s a bit of a shame, too, because there is ample reason to discuss the value of this rerun of the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Instead, we’ve seen teams like the Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes disrupt the flow of the chase for hockey’s Holy Grail, for this year’s edition of the postseason has run as fluently as a spider weaving its web.

The Panthers lost their general manager, formerly Jacques Martin, to the Montreal Canadiens as their newfound head coach; the Avalanche have capped a season of atypical managerial changes by firing coach Tony Granato and co. in the wake of rumours suggesting the arrival of Patrick Roy in some phantom form.

And the Coyotes, well, they’re still coursing through newspapers in the league’s most rigorous bouts with bankruptcy, almost becoming an entrenched vein in sports sections as other leagues have joined the NHL’s cause.

As these untimely moles elude a whack on the head—and pundits are not exempt from blame, either, having parched the issue of relocation like the desert that surrounds Jobing.com arena—another story has tossed itself into the fray.

A new group of investors comprised of Herb Carnegie, a recipient of the Order of Canada, Paul Pellegrini and Andrew Lopez of Toronto Legacy Group have publicized their intention to bring another team to Toronto, albeit via expansion. Boasting a wallet of $1 billion, all involved in the proposal harbour the hope of seeing their dream come to fruition in 2012.

The tentative team name has been announced as the Toronto Legacy, and according to Lopez, the team would aim to be the Toronto Maple Leafs’ “little brother.”

"Our vision precedes anyone else," Lopez said at a press conference in Toronto, adding that he and others had initially entertained the idea of expansion in 2004. "We're not here to talk about relocation.

"Our goal from Day 1 was to bring a second NHL team to Toronto as an expansion franchise. The Toronto Blue Jays were an expansion franchise; the Toronto Raptors were an expansion franchise, same with Toronto FC.

"I think it's the way of Toronto. We create our own."

Interesting they would announce this now, when the league could not have more on its plate.

There seemed to be a more finely tuned adherence to diplomacy, as the group announced they would not force any decision onto the NHL and that they would hope to be approached by the league if such an opportunity materialized—not the other way around, Jim Balsille-style.

Smart to entitle the project as the “little brother” to the Leafs, too, so as to not threaten their territory.

It was additionally shrewd to include Carnegie in the operations, a renowned humanitarian in the city with whom the Legacy would work as a link to charitable foundations, to which Lopez said the team would allocate 25 per cent of their hitherto hypothetical profit.

And get this: the stadium, purportedly announced to hold a capacity crowd of 30,000, will offer 15,000 of which at no more than $50 while designating front row seats solely to children.

Nice sentiment, but no, it still mounted atop a whole host of issues currently plaguing the NHL. So there isn’t anything rational in this third bid for expansion/relocation in Southern Ontario, including its fluffy, wholesome family image it has envisaged—and it may even slip into the background, like so many papers unacknowledged on a desk.

There’s no doubt a problem with this percolation of a desire to reposition and repossess teams; inevitably, a recession can change the dynamics and foci of a mainstream sports league.

One idea that has been discounted and may simplify the influx of suggestions being directed towards commissioner Gary Bettman, however, has been contraction.

If the Coyotes have taught the league and its fans any lesson, it’s that a market without a sufficient appetite for hockey should not be tapped.

As for the newest attempt to bring a team Toronto, the prospects don’t look bright given the NHL’s staunch stance against entertaining expansion in the near future.

So that may end discussions without the emphatic screeching halt, which is probably in the best interest of the league so as to prevent furthering the complexity of the revenue-sharing system.

Wouldn’t it be better to begin to flay and ultimately rid the league of teams harbouring incessant loans and have been futile in turning a profit, let alone sustaining interest in the organization within the constituency?

The idea, of course, would take years to execute—and this corner is certainly simplifying the extent of such an endeavour—but it has many benefits.

Wouldn’t, then, the NHL be a more competitive environment because of it? Instead of diluting the league’s possession of talent by allotting more jobs via expansion, wouldn’t removing 23-46 positions facilitate not only a more concentrated infusion of profit, but enhance contests as well?

(Note: I’m aware this may never remotely happen, given Bettman’s belief in not running out of a city.)

So now, hypocritically, I’ve become a part of the problem: add this to the heap of non-playoff related innuendo.

Just keep in mind there is very much a series in this summer-laden month of June. The Penguins and Red Wings have certainly concocted a spectacle that deserves to be enjoyed in its own right and it will be extended in Game Five and beyond.

But with the way the wire has been running, it’s hard to disregard flailing headlines. And perhaps it’s worth mulling over a few ideas that could command a healthier status quo in hockey.

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