The National Hockey League was founded in Canada in 1917, re-organized from the wreckage of the National Hockey Association, founded in 1910.
From surviving the 1917-18 with only three teams, the league struggled, fighting off proposed rival leagues, changing team ownership and relocation. The league found stability, starting in 1924 by expanding to the United States.
The expansion to the United States enabled it to defeat rival competition and become the sole elite league in Canada, cornering the market on elite hockey players by the late 1920s. This expansion to the States, and access to American money, enabled it to continue to today, virtually unchallenged in North America.
But is this model of NHL, a North American league of Canadian and American teams, now outdated in its organization?
Today the NHL is organized into East and West Conferences with several geographic divisions. This organization is as generic as can be. The previous organization used named divisions, named after historic figures in league history.
But these divisions probably meant little to the uninitiated. Would champion of the Patrick division mean anything to an American? Probably not. It was changed, modelled roughly after the structure of the other American sports leagues.
This was ostensibly to reach out to American fans and future fans, who likely would not find it anything other than quirky to have named divisions, no matter how historic it might be.
Since the early 1990s, the NHL has been growing south into the United States. The NHL changed its expansion model to one of 'find a market and fill it and hope the fans come', or words to that effect.
The Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning had to apply to get in, in a drawn-out process, which basically came down to paying the $50 million or not. But it did not satisfy the owners, so the NHL changed, placing teams with rich owners in Anaheim in Miami. And the process continued, moving into more non-traditional markets.
The plan is to spread out the teams to build nation-wide interest in hopes of growing revenues in the US. Getting better and better TV contracts to supplement ticket revenues.
But the US is slow in coming around. It takes time to build up local interest. In the US, with many competing sports, you have to be a winner to get attention. If you don't win, well, you have to work that much harder to promote and market 'the product'. Which is what it is viewed as, make no mistake about that.
Meanwhile, revenues in Canada, which has recovered from an economic slowdown from 10 years ago, have increased, pushing the salary cap higher, and putting a strain on teams' budgets in the southern US. Some of the southern teams are heavily leveraged. And Canadians are seeing less and less of a possible champion team coming from Canada.
To sum up: in the US, it's a work-in-progress, in Canada, very strong although there is some unhappiness about the growth of hockey further and further from 'home.'
Where to go from here? Well, I think the NHL's problems could be solved by re-organizing. Instead of being split east-west, split the league north-south. In fact, I think we need two leagues, a Canadian and an American under one "Major League Hockey" banner.
The two leagues would play somewhat of an interlocking schedule, have an interlocking draft and have some sort of salary cap. The two leagues would each crown a champion -a Canadian and an American champion, which could then play off for the Stanley Cup.
Why Canadian and American (though I'd name the American side, the National League)?
- Because both countries' fans respond to the national side of competition.
- Because each league could control its own TV
- Each league could control its franchise locations
And do those things in a way that would work in each country.
Let's face it, seeing the Phoenix Coyotes in Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal is a hard sell. There is no possible rivalry. But we could increase cross-country games in Canada, which are popular. Similarly, an Ottawa Senators game in Dallas, well where's the rivalry, and even more so for a potential new team in Hamilton.
Rumours have already started about American owners talking about how minor league Hamilton is. Well, split the leagues and we'll play who we want. We'll need some interlocking play because you can't play the same teams 10 times over the course of an 80 game season.
In the US, you almost never see a hockey game televised from Canada. In fact, I can't recall the last one, other than what the NHL puts on its own cable channel. An American league, organized to create an American champion would grow the US side of the business.
Lord Stanley was not American, but an American championship would get peoples' attention in the States. Similarly in Canada, a Canadian championship first would be popular. Guaranteed American and Canadian champions every year.
Franchise locations. Let's face it, there needs to be a limit on the total number of franchises. But there could be nine in Canada if it is a Canadian league. Winnipeg is not far off from being ready to go and Quebec would love to have a team. And Hamilton, well southern Ontario can support another team.
The Leafs sell out without any fuss or any promise of winning a championship. The US needs locations strategically located to boost rivalries. Like the championships of college sports, regional championships are popular in the US.
US supports sport at a higher level than Canada, but we in Canada are bigger boosters of hockey. As long as the franchises are nationally-based, Canadians will not object to the US side of the business doing all the tinkering it needs. We'll have our teams.
How the divisions would work:
Vancouver,Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg
Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec
San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado, Dallas, Phoenix (maybe)
Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville (maybe), Columbus
Boston, Buffalo, New York Rangers, Islanders and New Jersey Devils
Florida, Atlanta(maybe), Tampa, Carolina, Washington, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia
Each league would have playoffs resulting in a national champion. The two champions can play off for the Stanley Cup. Or we could even develop a Champions Hockey League, like is being done in Europe with soccer and upcoming in hockey, whereby club champions, more than two could compete to lead to a final showdown.
Maybe the Stanley Cup could become the world club championship trophy. But maybe I'm dreaming.