The NHL Is a Lot Weaker Than It Admits
Last year, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a grand tour of the cities whose teams he removed back in the 1990's with an olive branch in his hand, announcing that the NHL would consider returning to these places if certain conditions were met.
By deduction, unofficially the NHL wants:
1. Adequate fan support
2. Credible investors
3. An NHL size arena
4. No territorial disputes
So why after so long a banishment is the NHL making a partial wooing of its old members?
Two reasons, one positive and one negative.
An economic report last year stated that nearly one third of the NHL's revenues are coming from Canada. Even Bettman had to take notice of this above-average sum.
So now he'll listen to the pleas of Winnipeg and Quebec for returned franchises. Of the two, Quebec is doing the most to comply.
The best choice for Canadian expansion, Hamilton, is being ignored and shunned because Buffalo and Toronto don't want to share the rich southern Ontario market with another team.
But the other reason he is making a pilgrimage to Canada and Hartford must be that his league isn't in good shape, and that he wants some place to put teams if a crisis occurs.
He would rather do that than face the humiliation of contraction.
Last year, ten NHL franchises lost money. Everybody knows about the Phoenix Coyotes, but talk has still not completely died away about Atlanta, Florida, and Nashville relocating. The return of Columbus to out-of-playoff status won't help either.
The NHL is also hoping that a Brooklyn arena will bail out the Islanders and that new ownership will stabilize Tampa Bay.
Bettman seems to mean what he says this time. He would have to be an utter cad to openly urge Quebec to spend $400 million for a new arena without some kind of promise for a returned team, either by relocation or expansion.
He also met with the mayor of Hartford who stated he was willing to build a new arena as part of a revitalization project.
But the mayor got arrested for bribery and talk has died away.
There has also been speculation on a Kansas City franchise since a new 18,500-seat arena was built. But the NHL didn't like that an Islander exhibition game drew less than 10,000.
Winnipeg's small 15,000-seat arena and the fact that no investor has declared himself or herself to front a bid has muted NHL support.
Only Quebec is currently on the path that Bettman desires.
Even with all the unspoken difficulties and the positive report, the NHL is still only grudgingly considering Canada.
Under Bettman, the NHL made an active effort to secure the rich American tv contract that the other three major North American sports possess.
His plan was to expand the NHL into unfamiliar markets in hopes that American tv would now perceive that hockey was a national American game.
But hockey ratings remain pitiful in the United States, ESPN dropped hockey, and the NHL had to make do with Versus.
Then came the recession and the money losers.
So Bettman is considering returning franchises to Canada as the lesser of several evils.
Moving an American franchise back to Canada won't help his quest to make hockey a national American game, and secure the vital American TV contract.
American TV networks have been adamant that they don't want to broadcast games with Canadian teams if they can help it.
If he could afford to do it, Bettman would still give Quebec and Winnipeg the cold shoulder like he is doing with Hamilton, but the bad economic situation has made him retreat back down the path he has led the NHL.
He is even willing to consider the questionable Ice Edge bid for Phoenix which will mean that five games will be played in remote, Canadian, Saskatoon if it is accepted.
He has to be desperate to consider such a bid.
Other things aren't helping him. Atlanta was forced to make a bad trade for Ilya Kovalchuk and may finish out the playoffs again. Florida will probably miss the playoffs for the umpteenth time in a row. Columbus returned to the dark side of the NHL after one season in the sun. How long will the NHL owners tolerate running Phoenix at a horrible loss?
Canadians and some Americans are hoping that Bettman and the NHL will crack under such pressures. How much longer will it continue this way?
The Ice Edge bid and the pilgrimage to Canada are signs that all is not well with Gary Bettman's NHL.
The hope for a rich, American TV contract is gone for the foreseeable future.
But Bettman is a wily customer and nobody should underestimate his maneuverings and strategies to turn things in his favor.
He'll play for time and Canada's hopes for more NHL franchises may yet end up in the ashcan.
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