Conference Re-Alignment, NHL Style
Leave it to the Olympics. In a single instant, the emotional fate of an entire continent came to a screeching halt.
Leave it to hockey. In that same instant, a pair of 20-something millionaires became forever linked in a symbolic, pictorial representation of raw emotion.
It was a day that saw a former NHL all-star (Jeremy Roenick) reduced nearly to tears while pondering the connotative magnitude of a sudden-death, Gold Medal-deciding overtime.
It was a day that brought a two-week ballad for an embattled, yet morally correct mainstream sport to its appropriately thrilling climax. It was a day that reinforced hockey as the symbolic epitome of everything an Olympic sport is supposed to stand for.
With that ideal in mind, it was on that final day of the 2010 Winter Olympics, in the aftermath of Canadian Sidney Crosby's Orr-ian Gold Medal deciding overtime goal against Ryan Miller and the United States in the most emotion-fueled hockey showcase since the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," that we finally found a solution for fixing the NHL.
In the lucrative, high-stakes pecking order of American sports, hockey has always been a neglected fourth wheel. On the heels of the NHL's 2004-2005 season-long lockout, this notion has only been furthered to its slippery tipping point. In a nation where football is a religious rite of passage and baseball is an eternal photo album of our social history, the NHL is left to compete with the NBA on the outer cusp of mainstream supremacy.
While both have maintained strong footholds among there respective grass-root fan bases, hockey remains more of a niche-based concept. It's a dynamic that ultimately boils down to the natural seasonal process of each specific American community. Up North, in areas that experience a cold weather season (Boston, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Buffalo), the NHL has no trouble maintaining a rabid fan base.
For most of its history, the league was content with this loyal, if not limited American demographic. The symbolic balance between the tight-knit passion of these American out-coves and the large scale obsession of the Canadian brass was ideal in terms of both the purity of the sport and the preservation of its lengthy history.
But in recent years, in an effort to graduate from that dreaded "fourth wheel" status, the NHL has been on a purity-sapping collision course to "Americanize" its image. Conference and divisional labels, once connotative odes to hockey legends of the past, are now substance-free shout-outs to basic geography. In a sport where each champion spends a day with a holy sippy cup, the idea of trading complex tradition for an expedited train of thought just doesn't feel right.
The concept of franchise identity, once defined by the civic sense of pride shared by a group of players and their home city, has been skewed by the influx of warm-weather hockey neophytes. Come on, is there really a such thing as a die hard Tampa Bay Lightning fan?
Finally, the alarming fractional disparity between the total number of American and Canadian franchises (23-7 in favor of America) is disrespectful to the people who invented the sport in the first place. In Canada, hockey is baseball, basketball and football all mixed into a defining forum of fanaticism and patriotism. Baseball is synonymous with American history. Hockey IS Canadian history. Would it be fair to American fans if the MLB moved half of its teams to Japan?
Throughout history, hockey's pugnacious, team-first persona has provided an ideal backdrop for international competition. In today's day and age, with such a wide assortment of miscellaneous, tradition-strapped NHL franchises, the old "do it for the sweater" mantra carries far more significance when you're fighting to proclaim your homeland the capitol of the hockey universe.
This is why it's easy to understand how the Olympic Hockey Tournament is one of the few international events that actually overshadows a sport's primary professional outfit. In order for the NHL to generate a similar buzz among its casual fan base, the league must create a scenario that invokes a similar patriotic undertone. You start by moving every franchise (with the exception of LA) that plays in a disinterested, warm weather American market to a Canadian city that will embrace the team like a long-awaited first born child. Once the ratio has evened out, you re-structure the teams into a Canadian and an American Conference.
You want Americans to care about the Stanley Cup? Make it like baseball in the pre-wild card era and don't allow the conferences to play until then (this would add additional juice to the all-star game). While the Canada-America format may not provide the same patriotic zest among the players, it provides a casual bubble of fans with a genuine rooting interest even if their favorite team fails to advance.
As for the players, the new setup would re-ignite old division rivalries that have lacked passion in recent years. The lack of inner conference scheduling would enable traditional rivals to play a maximum number of regular season games. In doing so, you not only force them to build a genuine disdain for one another, you up the emotional ante for a potential playoff matchup.
If there's a lesson to be learned from the 27.6 million Americans (the most for any hockey game since the 1980 "Miracle" game) who tuned into that classic gold medal clash in February 2010, it's that, at the apex of its competitive spirit, hockey can be just as compelling as its mainstream brethren.
With the imminent possibility that professional players will no longer be allowed to participate by the 2014 games, it appears NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is eager to pull the plug on his sport's tenuous mainstream status. Instead of capitalizing on a golden opportunity to succeed where his administration has always seemed to fail (challenging the traditional American sporting heavyweights), Mr. Bettman will effectively ruin the only scenario where hockey is king.
Leave it to the NHL.
Yet we can't help but wonder, how would the NHL look under a refreshing nationalistic format?...
The goal is to create a 24-team league with two 12-team conferences; one representing Canada, the other representing the United States.
As it stands right now, the American franchises outnumber their Canadian brethren by a whopping 23-7 differential. To even the field, five well-established, and at least moderately successful, American franchises need to relocate to the five most prominent Canadian cities that don't currently have a team.
There's only room for 12 American teams. So some long standing franchises with loyal fan bases will have to bite the bullet until the league expands again.
Even after this Big East-ACC style relocation is complete, the US will still outnumber Canada by six franchises (18-12).
Luckily, these six incumbents are the most irrelevant franchises in the NHL for multiple reasons. This makes it easy to nix these neophytes and their laissez-faire fan bases. But we start with relocation, because you always try to move boxes before throwing them away. Here we go...
Colorado Avalanche Become the Quebec City Nordiques
Relax, Avalanche fans. I know you guys are far from hockey neophytes. And your team has been more relevant than the Rockies and Nuggets combined since moving to Colorado in 1995. But you did inherit a rising cup contender about to go on one of the most successful runs in recent NHL history at the time.
Is it really fair to the Quebec blue-bloods that, after watching up close as the Nordiques toiled between futility and mediocrity for two decades, they had to watch from afar as their beloved team finally became a powerhouse in Colorado?
It was hard enough for the loyal Quebec natives to watch the Avalanche win two Stanley Cups in their first five years of existence. But it was Patrick Roy, the Nordiques biggest nemesis during his time with the rival Canadiens, who led the Avs to those cups. That's like smearing the salt-infested remnants of a pretzel bag onto a five caliber bullet wound.
The Nordiques moved in 1995 because Quebec City was no longer financially capable of supporting a professional franchise. In the last 15 years, no city's economy has grown more than Quebec's, as evidenced by the third lowest unemployment rate in North America at 4.5 % (provincial and national averages are 7.3 % and 6.6 % respectively). Another financial bonus: media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau, the 85th richest man in Canada according to the Canadian Business Network, is the leading candidate to own a potential franchise.
Don't worry Colorado fans. If the NHL ever expands again, you'll be the first American city in line for an expansion team. But for now, let's kick off the Canadian renaissance by returning the Nordiques to their rightful home. We'll add the "City" to the end of "Quebec" for a sexy, re-invented identity.
St. Louis Blues Become the Saskatoon Royals
This relocation very nearly happened in 1982. Sports promoter "Wild Bill" Hunter tried to buy the floundering Blues and move them to Saskatoon. But the NHL vetoed the move because St. Louis was still twice as big a market at the time.
In the 30 years since, Saskatoon, with a population of over 230,000, has passed Regina as the largest city in the Saskatchewan province. It's also Canada's No. 1 economic growth spot with a most recent rate of 5.2 % in 2010 according to the Conference Board of Canada.
Like Colorado, St. Louis has one of the more underrated fan bases in the NHL. The Blues are also a prestigious member of the NHL's original 1967 expansion class that swelled the league from six to 12 teams.
Unfortunately, they can't match the historical significance of the four US-based "Original Six" teams and the Flyers, Penguins (two fellow 1967 expansion class members), Devils, Islanders and Sabres. With only 12 American spots to boot, the Blues are outclassed by bigger (LA, Washington) and more necessary (Minnesota, the capitol of US hockey along with Boston) US markets for the final three spots.
Like Colorado, St. Louis will be one of the first American cities in line when the league expands again. But for now, it's time to give the royalty capitol of Canada the chance its been waiting for.
San Jose Sharks Become the Halifax Mooseheads
The most prominent Canadian city without a professional team, Halifax has proven its hockey mettle time and time again over the years.
The largest city in Atlantic Canada has hosted three international tournaments since the turn of the millennium—including the 2008 World Championships. Its also been home to three of the most popular AHL teams (Voyaguers, Oilers and Citadels) of the last 40 years.
The city's current Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) squad, the Mooseheads, consistently pack the 10,000 plus seat Halifax Metro Centre. And that's Junior hockey. Imagine what Halifax could do with an NHL squad.
Granted, the Sharks have been successful both on the ice and at the gate in recent years. But there's only room for one California market in this new wave NHL, and Los Angeles will always be the cream of the Western crop.
As for the nickname; Mooseheads makes the jump because, let's be honest, what hip jersey collector wouldn't be on the hunt for a sweater with a giant moose as its dominant feature?
Anaheim Ducks Become the Hamilton Ducks
Hamilton is the Adam Dunn of prospective NHL tenants: it finds new and creative ways to whiff at every golden opportunity that comes its way.
First, the city lost out to Ottawa during the league's early 90's expansion. Then there was the multiple bidding escapades of local millionaire (20th richest person in Canada) and sports enthusiast Jim Balsillie. Each time, Balsillie had an overt intention of moving an established franchise to his hometown. Each time, this motive either caused the deal to fall through or be rejected by league officials.
In 2006, he reached a deal with Pittsburgh owner Mario Lemieux to buy the Penguins, only to back out after commissioner Gary Bettman took over the team's negotiations for a new Pittsburgh arena; thus plugging the Hamilton floodgates even if a new arena deal couldn't be worked out.
In 2007, Balsillie reached a tentative deal to buy the Nashville Predators, even accepting season ticket deposits for the Hamilton Predators via TicketMaster. This drew the ire of incumbent Predators owner Craig Leipold, who didn't want to mess with Toronto's territorial rights to the entire Ontario region. Leipold wrote a letter to the league denouncing Balsillie and sold his team to a group of investors instead.
Finally, Balsillie attempted to rescue the Phoenix Coyotes from bankruptcy in 2009. This time, he actually had an agreement in place to move the fledging franchise to Southern Ontario. But the NHL swooped in, took over the Coyotes, and rejected Balsillie's bid on the notion that he didn't have the power to force a relocation.
The hockey crazies in Hamilton have always felt like unwanted outsiders in the Maple Leafs overcrowded fan base. They've been waiting decades for their own team to challenge the Toronto-Buffalo hierarchy that surrounds the Southern Ontario-Western, NY region. It's time to give Jim Balsillie and the cultural hub of Canada's "Golden Horseshoe" (Greater Toronto area) their due. Let's be honest, the Anaheim Ducks can't be cool unless Charlie Sheen's brother is stalking the bench.
Dallas Stars Become the St. John's SkyRaiders
Something just never felt right about hockey in Dallas. It's kind of like pancakes for dinner or Corona in December: it works at the right moment, but it's far too awkward on a consistent basis.
Like Texas before the Stars, Newfoundland, the easternmost province in Canada, has never had an NHL team. As Newfoundland's capitol and home to nearly 40 % of its population, St. John's is easily the province's most logical tenant. While its only the 20th largest Canadian city, the oldest English founded city in North America also has its fastest growing population (doubled in the last five years).
Newfoundlanders have always been identified by a pugnacious, Napoleonic complex stemming from the former UK territory's status as the youngest province in the Canadian Confederation (added in 1949, 44 years after the previous additions of Saskatchewan and Alberta).
With a hockey team to call its own, you can bet this former US Air Force Base would rally behind the SkyRaiders as they take on Canada's more established hockey hotbeds.
Now let's weed out the fat. These are the irrelevant, warm weather American neophytes with fan bases about as fickle as a Kardashian sister.
As the British Regis Philbon (Anne Robinson, if you actually care about her name) would say, "You arrre the Weakest Link, goodbye!"
You know things haven't worked out when your team has had more bankroll issues than playoff-series victories in 15 years of existence.
From the infamous Rick Tocchet gambling ring (that included, and this is not a joke, Wayne Gretzky's wife) in the mid 00's, to the team's recent bankruptcy in 2009, only Saudi Arabia has a more depressing financial history than the Coyotes.
With the team currently owned by the NHL, the future in Phoenix looks about as bright as an Alaskan winter.
It didn't work for the Expos, and they played in Montreal, the New York City of Canada. It's time to pull the plug on perhaps the most futile expansion attempt in NHL history (and yes that's saying something).
Here's all you need to know about Tennessee's level of hockey interest: the Predators have registered five playoff appearances and three 100-plus point seasons in six seasons since the lockout.
There highest attendance ranking during that time span? 21st in the league in 2007-08. During the other five seasons, the Preds finished 27th on three occasions and 26th in the other two.
The Predators are not an embarrassment to the league like the Coyotes. The general public, especially in Tennessee, just can't seem to remember they exist.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Memo to Gary Bettman: When attempting to expand your brand to fresh markets, you can't put a tentative expansion franchise in a cold-blooded college sports town. That's exactly what the NHL did with the Blue Jackets, who play their games about 2.5 miles north of the Ohio State campus.
As evidenced by the financial success and relevance of teams like the Blackhawks and Blues, hockey in the midwest isn't a flawed concept like hockey on the West Coast or deep South. As the second-most populous Midwestern state (and 7th in the entire country) behind Illinois, Ohio is a necessary regional destination.
But, choosing Buckeye country over established professional towns like Cincinnati and Cleveland was yet another boneheaded expansion mistake by the Bettman regime. In an area with over 40,000 college students, a professional team has no choice but to attract the college crowd as a significant portion of its fan base.
But what right-minded OSU student would choose Rick Nash and the middling Blue Jackets over Jared Sullinger and the top-ranked Buckeyes? You just can't replicate a college atmosphere in a touchy-feely NHL market.
Not coincidentally, Blue Jackets attendance has dropped every season since 2001. It bottomed-out in 2010-11, as the Jackets were one of just four NHL teams playing to average crowds below 80 % capacity.
Tampa Bay Lightning
In terms of cold-blooded passion, Florida sports fans are the worst in America. Miami fans are bad. But at least South Beach natives have a hip enough sense to jump on the bandwagon at the right time (case in point: the Heat's pre-season championship celebration after acquiring the big three).
To Tampa natives, the bandwagon may as well be a feature on Oregon Trail. The Rays can't draw flies in spite of being a perennial playoff contender in the rugged AL East. The Buccaneers drew fewer than 100,000 fans at their January 2003 Super Bowl parade. And the Lightning were one of those four teams (along with the Blue Jackets) to play before average crowds of less than 80 % capacity in 2010-11.
Two of those teams didn't make the playoffs, and the other was predictably bounced in the first round. The Lightning, on the other hand, finished one win shy of the Stanley Cup Finals.
It's one thing to be a fair-weather fan base. But if you can't even recognize when the weather is fair, you don't deserve teams in the first place.
Save for the flukiest Stanley Cup run in league history in 2006, the Hurricanes are best known for having to portion off the upper deck of the Greensboro Coliseum (original home) during their first few seasons in North Carolina.
You know a team has no shot when the locals didn't even notice it walking in the door.
Seriously, name another expansion franchise that failed to generate a buzz for at least the first few weeks of its existence. You can't.
Even new Arena Football teams can pack the house for a week or two. Maybe Carolina natives confused hockey with indoor soccer or the X Games. Or maybe hockey is just about as relevant to them as toenails or lint.
Speaking of relevance, the Hurricanes would be far and away the most irrelevant franchise in any of the other major professional sports leagues. But in the NHL, they're saved by the last team we are eliminating...
After years of blood, sweat, trial and error, great visionaries have a way of perfecting a recipe in their own unique fashion.
Mrs. Fields did it with cookies. Auntie Anne did it with soft pretzels. Ben and Jerry did it with ice cream. And Gary Bettman did it with irrelevant sports teams.
For all the previous failures mentioned on this perpetual laundry list, the Florida Panthers are Bettman's Cherry Garcia. It's stupid enough to have a single team representing an entire state. Seriously, how can people in Jacksonville and Miami attend the same pep rallies?
But that concept is even stupider when you've already placed a team in one of the state's most prominent cities.
I guess that Lightning-Panthers rivalry never quite panned out, did it Gary? Just consider how irrelevant the Marlins would be if they finished 35 games out of first every year. That's the Panthers.
Step Three: The Fun Part
Ok. Now everything else has been settled. The American neophytes that were never quite alive in the first place are now officially dead and never to be remembered.
The slightly more relevant (think second tier between the 12 survivors and the six dead ducks) American franchises have been properly relocated to a more deserving Canadian city.
Now we stand with the 12 most prominent American franchises, the six original Canadian franchises and the six modern Canadian additions (Winnipeg is still in the first year of its renewed existence so we'll group them with the new teams).
It's time to group these nationalistic conferences into two separate divisions apiece (four in total). And yes, historical namesake will take precedent over geography.
-Named for the greatest hockey coach of all-time, nine time Stanley Cup champion and lifelong Canadian, Scotty Bowman.
Quebec City Nordiques
St. John's SkyRaiders
The Skinny: What better way to create fresh, new rivalries than putting all the new Canadian franchises in the same division? This would also create a passionate sense of animosity dividing the Canada Conference between the nouveau riche and the old guard.
-Named for Clarence Campbell, a Saskatchewan native and the longest tenured NHL President in history (1946-1977) who played a leading role in the league's original expansion in 1967.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Under the current setup, the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Senators already form a fierce, tradition-laden (especially in the Canadiens and Leafs case) triumvirate of rivalries in the Northeast Division. The Canucks, Flames and Oilers do the same out in the Northwest. Put them all together, and you have a Canadian cesspool of fire and hatred.
-Named for Herb Brooks, one of the most successful coaches in American collegiate history, and the legendary orchestrator behind the 1980 "Miracle on Ice."
Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings
The Skinny: Prominent cities galore as six of the top 50 US markets come together in this division. In many ways, it's the perfect storm of US hockey characteristics as "Original Six" tradition (Detroit, Chicago) meets grassroots hotbeds (Boston, Minnesota) meets the political and entertainment meccas of global society (Washington, Los Angeles).
What Washington and Los Angeles lack in hockey tradition, they make up for in star power. Out West, Wayne Gretzky once challenged Magic and the Lakers for sporting supremacy. Down in DC, Alex Ovechkin is challenging Barack Obama and the White House as the main event.
-Named for Gary Bettman, the first person in NHL history to hold the "commissioner" title. The oft-maligned Queens, NY native has overseen the league's first American national television contract (with Fox in 1994) and a net financial increase of over $700 million in league wide revenue.
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
The Skinny: No coast hates like the East Coast, which is why nothing in sports compares to a personal, fan-base-to-fan-base rivalry between classic, idnetity-bound Northeastern cities. Perhaps this is why every sport seems to have a Northeastern "it" division, where literally each team can claim a legitimate rivalry with every other team.
Football has the NFC East. Baseball has the AL East. And hockey had the Atlantic Division. Now it's the Bettman Divison (don't laugh, hockey was below Arena Football in America before him). But that's the only thing that's changed other than the long overdue addition of the Sabres.
Here's all you need to know about the Northeastern fan culture. I go to Syracuse but grew up in Flyers country, Philadelphia.
My Mom hates the Islanders because they dethroned the Broad Street Bullies as the region's most prominent team in the late 70's. My friends hate the Devils because they prevented the Lindros era from reaching its potential ceiling. My younger brother hates the Penguins because of Sidney Crosby. And all of them hate the Rangers because they play in New York City.
As for my college friends who are Sabres fans, they view the Flyers as their biggest rival.
Hate breeds hate. In the Northeast, the concept is parasitic. These rivalry-bound traditions made each Atlantic Division team too relevant to get rid of during the realignment, making it the only grouping to remain completely intact.