Hockey Traditionalists Better Hope Coyotes, Thrashers, and Panthers lose soon

Joe M.Correspondent IIDecember 29, 2009

25 Nov 1992:  Rightwinger Andrei Kovalenko of the Quebec Nordiques moves the puck during a game against the Buffalo Sabres at Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo, New York. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart  /Allsport
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

If you are a baseball fan, then you remember in 2002 when the Contraction Kids, the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos, each had above average seasons after appearing to be headed to the chopping block.

In the Twins case, they won the American League Central by a comfortable nine games en route to a second-round exit in the American League Championship Series to the Los Angeles Angels.

The Expos, meanwhile, went 83-79 and finished second in the National League East. That was also the year that they were contenders for a short time for the Wild Card, so much so they traded for then-Cleveland Indians ace Bartolo Colon only to see that flop and the team slide.

Because of football's parity, anyone can win any given year so the same logic doesn't really apply.

The NBA meanwhile is a six city sport: Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, San Antonio, Miami, and Chicago where the rest of the teams in the league historically don't have a chance (yes I am well aware of the Orlando Magic). It's hard to stack up for a short run the same way it is in baseball or hockey, so if it doesn't work, ship them all away.

For those who read my hockey articles, or read my comments on other boards, you know I've been following the possible return of the NHL to historic, traditional places like Quebec City, Winnipeg, and Hartford.

Nothing would please me more than to see the Phoenix Coyotes move from non-traditional Arizona back up North to a hockey hotbed like any of the former three.

In a perfect world, in a twist of irony, they would return to Winnipeg but it's Winnipeg that doesn't seem to be serious on whether they truly want the NHL to return or not. Due to that, it appears that Quebec has passed them by as the desired relocation point for any team that may suffer this fate.

Again, in a perfect world, Phoenix would go to Winnipeg, Atlanta to Quebec (or vice versa) and Florida would go to Hartford.

However, there now appear to be some snags to that scenario.

The Coyotes, in case you haven't noticed, are actually good this year. As in really good. As in 24-13, in-fourth-place-in-the-Western-division if-the-playoffs-started-today good.

Only four points out of the top seed good.

This sounds familiar.

Remember the 1995-96 Quebec Nordiques?

I do. And I wrote about it here.

That team finished as the Wales, ahem, Eastern Conference's, top seed only to be upset by the New York Rangers.

Could the 2009-10 Coyotes suffer the same fate?

How many people can name even three players on their team? I can't, but I could name about a third of the Nordiques roster. Many of those players were budding superstars that either made a name for themselves there or after the relocation to Colorado. Many played so long, as is the norm in the NHL, that later generations certainly had their chance to hear about them, as well as the team, later on.

In going back to the Montreal Expos example. Remember the 1994 strike-shortened baseball season? That essentially could have been the Quebec Nordiques had they stayed in Canada, especially when you consider that team won the Stanley Cup the very next year. Their first in Colorado.

The only difference was, that team was not a dynasty, even though they did win the Cup again in 2001. That 1996 team, nonetheless, set the stage for the hockey tradition that lies in Colorado today and set the tone for the many competitive seasons which were to follow in Denver. It proved Colorado was a hockey market and justified the move to the U.S., and made that part of the transition effortless for Coloradoans.

After hoping for months that teams like the Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers, and Phoenix Coyotes would tail off, and that their shaky ownerships would find the allure of a new start, in a new country, with a more stable economy and stronger Canadian dollar too good to pass up, it now appears quite the opposite, almost in every single case.

Atlanta Thrashers

At 18-16-4 the team is having probably their second best season ever. Considering they've only made the playoffs once in their 10-year history, and are currently slated as the Eastern Conference's eighth seed, that says a lot.

We know about Kovalchuk and his pending free agent status. Again, I'm hoping that he goes to a more traditional (read: Canadian) market where he can thrive and shine and Atlanta and its few fans are left wondering "what now?"

Imagine Kovalchuk, comparable to Sidney Crosby in terms of talent, and not hardware, skating next year for the Edmonton Oilers, a small market team by NHL standards. It would be about as close as a Gretzky do-over as they could hope for. It would revitalize the base, and give them a chance at completing the trade instead of the failed Dany Heatley debacle post-draft 2009.

Or maybe Kovalchuk goes to those fun loving Alberta rivals, the plucky and quirky Calgary Flames—my favorite of the existing Canadian franchises (at least until Winnipeg and Quebec come back). Either move would be good in revitalizing the interest of traditional markets that the NHL needs to succeed.

Finally, maybe the hockey gods align and he goes to the improving (did I just write that?) Toronto Maple Leafs whom find themselves just three points out of a playoff spot after a terrible 0-7 start.

If Le Canadiens are the New York Yankees of hockey, as purists like the put it, I'd like to consider the big-market, MLSE owned Maple Leafs the Boston Red Sox. After all, they are a fellow "original six" member of the NHL and like the Red Sox-Yankees discripancy, find themselves with far fewer Cups than their countrymen cousins (13, to Montreal's 24).

After years of being downright horrid—no higher than third place since before the lockout—nothing would please the NHL more than to not only see one of its stars go there, but as a result, bring them back up.

Four seasons may not seem like a lot, but in hockey terms, in Canada where the sport is king, it might as well be a decade. Sounds spoiled, but its "long suffering" for the hockey-loving residents of "The Big Smoke."

Traditionalists' saving grace may be however, that at 13,745 fans a game, in a progressive and cosmopolitan city in the American South with so many other things to do, their attendance, despite their success on the ice, ranks 28th out of 30 teams. Finally, their value, at $158 million is 27th, according to Forbes.

So far, they've been linked to Hamilton, Ontario, and Winnipeg. But like with the other limbo teams, so goes their success on the ice, so goes the economy, so goes that team.

Phoenix Coyotes

By far, the most intriguing option, not only because of their immediate vulnerability financially, but they remain the most successful of these endangered teams in their current warm weather climates.

Again, at 24-13-3, they currently sit second in the Pacific Division behind perennial spring choker, San Jose, and fourth in the Western Division standings. This is the one team traditionalists had better hope starts to lose soon before interest catches on more than it already has.

That's right, I said their attendance is increasing—albeit slowly.

While they still rank 30th in the league in attendace—dead last—they now average more than 10,000 per game at 10,127 up from just 9,600-plus a few months ago. On top of that, their impending sale to group-Ice Edge from the NHL appears imminent.

What does that mean for the NHL in Arizona?

First off, the group is supposedly in talks to possibly play a series of games in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. While that's not exactly Quebec or Winnipeg that I covet, at least they have both the country and geographic location right, so its a start.

Secondly, the group has ties to Connecticut with three of their principal owners, working for a firm in the Constitution State. Might we someday seek a return of the Whalers to Hartford this way?

Like the Thrashers, Phoenix is at the bottom of the rankings in Forbes. In fact, at the very bottom, bringing up the rear at $142 million-with a three million dollar decrease as of 2008.

They are the only such team not to turn a profit.

Keep in mind this team's recent attendance success was inflated due to more free giveaways—this time blankets during their pre-holiday success. Each time they've done these gimmicks, however, the fans showed and the team responded by coming out and winning.

Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers, currently one point out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, haven't made the postseason since the 1999-2000 season, and only three times in their sixteen years in the league. So history and tradition are not on their side if the NHL ever comes looking for Canadian suitors.

At 24th in the league in attendance at 14,613 per game, in addition to being 24th in Forbes, their future in Florida doesn't look bright, despite playing in the city of Sunrise.

Consider their location. Right outside of Miami, in Cuban, Spanish-speaking Florida, and it's pretty easy to see why hockey hasn't translated in the Sunshine state.

Their ownership situation is much less clear than the rest so if anyone could update me on that, that would be appreciated, but one thing remains clear: Like their endangered cousins, the Thrashers and Coyotes, hockey traditionalists alike would be wise to start hoping these cusp teams begin to lose before their financial situations and futures, get more secure in their existing locations.

Statistics and information from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Star in Canada, ESPN.com, Wikipedia, the Phoenix Business Journal, Forbes.com, and USA TODAY directly contributed to this article.