4 NHL Teams That Need to Go Away
Despite recent economic hard times the NHL would seem to be enjoying a level of success that is unprecedented in the league's history. In an April 13th story on nhl.com the league announced, "the NHL is on pace for its fifth consecutive year of record total revenue and is projected to bring more than $2.9 billion by the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs."
Merchandise sales are up. The league has found a mid-season showcase event in the Winter Classic that now outshines its ridiculous All-Star Game.
The playoffs, as always, are hard fought and intense and very fun to watch (if anyone saw Game 7 between Detroit and San Jose you know why playoff hockey is the best).
Despite this wealth of good news and congratulatory pats on the back, there are some signs of trouble around the league. Specifically, there are four franchises that are facing very uncertain futures.
In some cases these teams have been losers for so long that fans have given up on them. In other cases the teams can't find owners willing to invest in them because they are bleeding money so quickly.
The fact of the matter is the NHL, despite its record revenues, just has too many teams and the sport has watered down its talent, and the quality of its game, as a result. Here are four NHL clubs that just need to go away.
4. Florida Panthers
Quick, when was the last time the Florida Panthers made the playoffs? I'll give you some hints; Bill Clinton was still president, 9/11 hadn't happened yet and no one had ever heard the phrase "hanging chads". Give up?
The Florida Panthers have not made a playoff appearance since the 1999-2000 season. Considering that relative mediocrity can usually gain you a playoff spot in the NHL it becomes all the more surprising that the Panthers can't find a way in.
The Panthers fight every year for last place in the Southeast Division. That's a shame for a team that still manages to have somewhat decent attendance numbers (the team managed an average attendance of 15,685 in 2010-2011, 22nd in the NHL out of 30 clubs). The fact of the matter is that ownership is not willing to do what it takes to build a winner in south Florida (in effect, pay for the talent necessary to build a winner).
If an owner isn't willing to build a winner he devalues his product and fans stop coming and potential buyers stay away. The Panthers, unfortunately, need to go away.
3. Atlanta Thrashers
Way back when, the city of Atlanta used to have a hockey team. Its name, appropriately enough, was the Flames. You can probably guess what happened to them.
Yes, they moved to Calgary where they are beloved by their fans and where attendance is not an issue (the Flames are 6th in the league in average attendance, at 19,289). This begs the question, who thought it would be a good idea to give Atlanta another hockey franchise?
Atlanta is not known as a great sports town to begin with, even with successful franchises. The Braves for much of the 90's and the early part of the decade were perennial division winners and a fixture in the MLB playoffs. That didn't keep the fans from staying away, however, much to the consternation of the league and fans in other cities who would have LOVED to have experienced the success of a team like the Braves.
So, what did anyone expect when an NHL expansion franchise was granted to Atlanta, where winning on a consistent basis was probably at least several years away? You got it. Folks have stayed away in droves. The official average attendance numbers in Atlanta are 13,469, good for 28th in the league. On most nights, however, that estimate would be considered generous.
Rumor has it that a group from Winnipeg is in talks to have the team moved there, which would seem sensible. Gary Bettman, of course, is not commenting on the situation. Should the deal in Winnipeg fall through, however, the league should give serious thought to simply saying good-bye to the Thrashers.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets entered the NHL as an expansion franchise with the Minnesota Wild in 2000. The city of Columbus' voters had defeated a referendum to provide public financing to build an arena for a new franchise to support the city's bid to get an NHL team.
That should have been a warning shot across the bow regarding future fan support, but private investors swooped in to guarantee that Nationwide Arena would be built and Columbus was eventually granted a franchise.
Since then the Blue Jackets have qualified for the playoffs just once (in 2009, getting swept by Detroit in the first round). Columbus has struggled both on and off the ice and their dwindling attendance numbers and bleeding of cash do not paint a pretty picture for this franchise.
Expansion franchises take a notoriously long time to get going and produce a consistent winner. Sometimes you get lucky and win early, and even win a championship (see the Tampa Bay Lightning). Barring that, however, you need a hockey hungry fan base that is willing to weather the tough times and stick by you. A fan base willing to buy tickets and jerseys even when you stink.
That's not the case in Columbus and there are no signs that things are going to get better. Occasionally one has to look at one's hand and realize that it's time to fold. Such is the case with the Blue Jackets.
1. Phoenix Coyotes
The history of the Phoenix Coyotes dates back to 1972, when they were born as the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets played in the World Hockey Association, a league in direct competition with the NHL. Eventually the WHA disbanded, but the Jets were successful enough to join the NHL as part of a merger, along with three other WHA teams.
The Jets, however, ran into financial difficulties during the early 1990's as player salaries skyrocketed and Canadian teams in the NHL found it more difficult to pay players (due to the discrepancy between the Canadian and U.S. dollars). There was never any question of fan support in Winnipeg, but due to their financial troubles the team was forced to move to Phoenix in 1996.
It is ironic then that the Coyotes now find themselves, once again, in financial difficulty and are being courted by investors from Winnipeg, no less, to get bailed out and moved back to Canada.
The Coyotes have been bleeding money for some time now. They declared bankruptcy in 2009 and have been funded by the NHL since then to keep the team from going into further debt until a new buyer can be found. The city of Glendale, where the Coyotes play, eventually came up with enough cash to keep the team for another season, but the Coyotes' future is uncertain after that.
Attendance for the Coyotes was dreadful this year, despite decent play on the ice and qualifying for the playoffs. It has become obvious that Phoenix is not a viable location for an NHL franchise, and should the Coyotes not find a home in the Great White North, saying good-bye has to be considered.
It is never a popular option for a major sports league to admit defeat and contract the number of member teams.
It is even harder in this day and time where the players' union (the NHLPA) will inevitably attempt to block contraction because of the jobs that will be lost to their members.
Even in cities where attendance was poor and folding or moving the franchise makes sense, it can be economically devastating to the community to lose a team as well as psychologically devastating. Contraction should only be considered when all other options have been considered.
It is true that the NHL had record profits this year. It is also true that there are franchises in trouble, including ones I didn't even mention here.
The New York Islanders, a storied franchise and a dynasty in the early 1980's can't get more than 12,000 fans to their arena on a given night, an arena that is ancient and in desperate need of refurbishing or replacement. Other seemingly solid franchises, such as St. Louis and Dallas, are also in the red.
The fact of the matter is that the NHL, flush with success during the 1990's, expanded too much and too quickly and into markets where it made no sense to put teams. The league is paying the price for that now.
Contraction would allow more teams to have better talent and would bring the quality of play up for the remaining teams and improve the quality of the game. That, in the end, will be of far more benefit than trying to keep teams that have little or no chance of success.