After a summer that has bred a good deal of irregular signings for a post-lockout/salary cap NHL, two questions must be asked.
How has the NHL changed in the past decade? And what can be done to ensure the viability and success of the NHL in the future?
Recently, NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly was bold enough to say that revenue sharing and installing teams in Canadian markets was the key to a successful future in the NHL.
"Canadian fans are like no others. They're passionate, they come out and support it, they buy the merchandise, and they're knowledgeable about the sport. And it seems to us a no-brainer that if you're going to expand or you're going to relocate, that you first and foremost have to consider some of the major hubs here in Canada."
"But I think there are locations in Canada that would strongly support the NHL game."
If, in fact, those markets had NHL-caliber arenas.
As it has been, even since the days of the WHA, new markets have been seen as the future of the league. However, since many markets in the NHL have failed miserably, such as Cleveland, Oakland, and Kansas City, there are many question marks surrounding relocation.
Even in markets that were die-hard about their teams when they were there, such as the whiteouts in Winnipeg or the fans in Quebec that finally had another team to cheer for besides Les Canadiens, there is a hesitation to go back to those markets.
True, the size of Winnipeg (approx. population 700,000-750,000) or Quebec City (approx. population 500,000-550,000) are big question marks considering that other markets are much larger. Yet, even in a market such as Carolina or Florida, areas of dense population, they draw fewer fans than would a game in those smaller markets.
Returns to markets such as Minnesota, Atlanta, and Colorado have generally been successful, despite the Thrashers' mixed success over their seasons in Georgia's capital.
Yet, even in the NHL's smallest market, Edmonton, Rexall Place sells out every single game. Edmonton is not much larger a city than Winnipeg. Could the NHL return to Winnipeg, Hartford, and even Quebec City again, just as it has to Minnesota?
Salaries are skyrocketing again. The writing's on the wall—Bettman seems to be going back to square one. The salaries skyrocketed when he was instituted as commissioner in 1993, and the game has gone through ebbs and flows of popularity. Is Bettman still the right guy for the job?
Bettman was brought in to instill a modernized look into the NHL, popularize the game in the US, and expand the league. Since the start of his tenure, the league lost teams in small, yet affordable markets such as Minnesota, Quebec City, Hartford, and Winnipeg, while adding teams in markets with little exposure to hockey such as Carolina, Phoenix, Dallas, and Nashville, among others.
Is this relocation to the south best for hockey? It has left a good footprint of hockey in the American south, but has been heavily criticized by many Canadian and Northern US fans. Fans from the most supportive markets, such as Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, New York, Edmonton, and many other northern markets seem to see this southern expansion as moving away from traditional hockey.
Is Bettman's plan working? Has the NHL really been popularized? Is it more viable? Would a fan in the US have a hard time choosing between the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL?
I don't think so.
The NHL has a strong following in Canada already. Yet, Bettman wants that same following in the US, where other sports already dominate due to exposure and the knowledgeability of the fans of the other sports.
Can Bettman expose the game that well in the US?
Where would the NHL go if they were to replace Bettman? Would they even replace him?
And as the players seem to be playing more and more for the money and less and less for the love of the game, can we honestly believe that the NHL can become viable once again?
Or is the NHL doomed to the existence of small league status?