Guest blogger: Les Gura

29

The NHL’s Unspoken Problem

This time of year, it’s easy to forget that NHL hockey isn’t being played. The recently-completed baseball playoffs, college football and onset of a new NBA season all occupy a great deal of media attention. As do the concluding weeks of NASCAR’s race for the cup, the NFL and the college hoops season’s kickoff.

But then, it’s always easy to forget about hockey—unless you’re a diehard fan. You know, the people getting screwed by the latest lockout perpetrated by the owners and their puppet, Gary Bettman. The people who pay the ever-rising ticket prices year after year, buy and sleep in their favorite players’ jerseys, chant their ever-inventive chants and hope that maybe, just maybe, this could be the year for their team.

Do I have a stake? Of course. I’m a diehard Rangers fan, from the day as a nine-year-old when my father took me to a rare Sunday matinee at Madison Square Garden (this would be 1968) and we got tickets in the press box, of all things, and watched the Rangers of Ed Giacomin and Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert beat the Blackhawks 3-2. And my team is on the verge of greatness, having been built properly, for a change and run the right way by Glen Sather after years of wrong-way madness. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed last season, with all the homegrown talent emerging, putting together gritty win after gritty win. Sure, it stunk that they lost out to the Devils, but real Rangers fans have to like this current edition more than any other, even the Cup team of 1993-94.

But I digress.

This piece is not about hockey, because, to reiterate, hockey isn’t being played right now! You know, when it should be.

I could throw gasoline on Bettman and the owners. Or I could get angry at Donald Fehr for leading the players down the same path he took baseball players back in 1994, wiping out a season.

I’d rather, however, focus on the extremely simple solution to hockey’s financial woes. It’s the unspoken solution. In a word — contraction.

Owners have sucked up expansion fee after expansion fee, lustfully seeking the size of the other major sports and the prestige and the TV rights fees. Except hockey isn’t baseball or football or basketball. It’s a sport that has proven, over time, to have strong core markets and solid secondary markets. Once you get beyond the hockey-proven markets, you struggle (yup, we’re talking about you, Atlanta).

If the NHL would admit this, and the union would admit this, then we’d be able to reach conclusion to the labor agreement quickly. Think how strong the league would be without its weak sister franchises. That would be you Phoenix. And you, Florida. And Columbus and Nashville, which, despite the love of the diehards, simply don’t have the long-term financial makeup to succeed.

Eliminating the weak strengthens the whole. No one has to be driven into panic mode when the big teams sign a free agent or make an offer sheet. Does anyone think Nashville matching Philly’s offer for Shea Weber is going to help that franchise long term? What we know is going to happen is that no matter how competitive Nashville starts out trying to be in the year ahead, eventually, when they fall short, they will start torpedoing other players and face “rebuilding.’’ Which is shorthand for “we can’t afford a good team.’’ I know. I spent 19 years of my adult life in Connecticut watching a rarely competitive Whalers squad in constant “rebuild’’ mode constantly because every time they started to put together a scrappy, competitive team, they couldn’t get over the hump, worried about their payroll and started the reboot. Now that I live in North Carolina, I get to watch it all over again with the Whale legacy, the Hurricanes. At least one edition of that team won a Cup (and I was at Game 7 to enjoy with my son, who was rooting for Edmonton, because he simply would not forgive owner Peter Karmanos for uprooting “his” team when he was nine).

The problem with consolidation, of course, is twofold: owners and players oppose it. It will in the short term cost the league in overall market size and advertising dollars and it will forever cost the players in terms of jobs.

In real life, though, what does any good business do when it hits tough times? Anyone ever get a pink slip? Businesses that want to survive adjust through different periods by being realistic about their size. When an individual McDonald’s doesn’t cut the mustard, it goes out of business; the company survives and grows stronger.

How many years of financial turmoil does it take to see that the NHL is not and never will be a major sport in the manner of MLB, NFL and NBA? There’s nothing wrong with contraction and there’s nothing wrong with having 24 or 26 teams rather than 30.

Think about how many strong franchises the NHL has: Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Jose, Detroit, Philadelphia. Think about the solid secondaries: Los Angeles, Minnesota, Dallas, Washington, Winnipeg, Calgary, Anaheim, New Jersey, Brooklyn (hopefully uplifting the moribund Islanders), Tampa.

Why are the strong letting the weak lead the NHL down this path? It’s bad business practice because it erodes not just the fringe fan base, but the diehards, too. All my life, I’ve had my diehard hockey friends. And inevitably, when I call them after a lockout ends to discuss the season, at least one will say, “ah, I’m not really paying attention any more.’’ Used to be, for decades really, that Rangers games sold out the Garden and scalpers were a fan’s only hope to get to a game. Not so much the past decade.

You think the lockouts don’t have anything to do with that? Sometimes, we diehards don’t come back.

 

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29 Comments

  1. I fear the current bargaining sessions may be ruining my chances of providing a live Tostitos and BizNasty update from an EIHL game some time in December – hope for an NHL season is ruining my hopes of seeing NHLers skate in the UK this year!

  2. Good morning, boneheads!

    Good work, Les!
    Contraction isn’t happening. In fact, expect to see 2 more teams over the next few years.

  3. ILB hot the nail right on the head. Expansion is waaay more likely to happen than contraction. First off, Donald Fehr would sooner have to gnaw his legs off after they had been caught in a bear (or is that Bruin trap) than lose jobs.

    Second off, the greedy owners (I know, redundant) are going to look to recoup some of their financial windfall through expansion fees.

    From strictly a procedural standpoint, expansion makes sense because the NHL could split into two conferences with four four-team divisions aligned along geographical lines.

    Let’s figure that Seattle and Quebec are added. Your Western Conference would be grouped thusly: Canada West: Canucks/Flames/Oilers/Jets, Pacific: Sharks/Ducks/Kings/Seattle, Southwest: Coyotes/Avalanche/Stars/Blues, CentraL: Red Wings/Wild, Blue Jackets/Blackhawks. Your Eastern Conference would be grouped thusly: Atlantic: Rangers/Islanders/Devils/Bruins, Canada East: Canadiens/Maple Leafs/Senators/Quebec/, Southeast: Lightning, Panthers, Hurricanes, Predators; Northeast: Penguins/Flyers/Sabres/Capitals.

  4. Yea! That’s what we need. MORE TEAMS. Let’s effect the distribution of the mid-cap even more! I can’t wait for the next Lockout.

    National Hockey Lockout!

  5. Let me just say this: even if it takes longer time than we want, they have to get it right this time. It has to work for both sides. The last CBA had too many holes in it, and it showed. They can not go through this every 5-6 years. Neither can we.

  6. So let me get this straight. You find yourself in the kitchen, you see an eclair in the receptacle, and you think to yourself, ‘What the hell, I’ll just eat some trash.’

  7. 19 years now since we won the Cup

    just to show how long that really is,

    when we won the Cup in 94, it had been 19 years since we were somehow upset by the Isles

  8. the 19 years thing is also some kind of warped isosceles triangle

    Funny – Last week on thsi very blog I was singing along with Nikolai Volkoff’s Soviet national anthem

    Now I find myself humming along with Hulk Hogan’s “I am A Real American…Fight for The Rights of Every Man…” go ahead, I dare you to try to NOT hum it now

  9. according to reports, it appears hagelin blew out his shoulder, this crap just keeps getting worse, sigh.

  10. hi les..i agree..contract!!! 24 teams,two conferences,two six team divisions in each……six games against each of the other five teams in your division(30),four games against the other division in your conference(24),and a home-and-home against the other conference(24)….rivalries-check conference-check everyone plays everyone every year-check 78 games…i should be the commish

  11. How did he blow out his shoulder? Does it really matter…I mean, I don’t think there will be a season this year…just sayin’

  12. So they meet again tomorrow…how lovely. Wtf were they avoiding each other for the past two months for then? Bunch of freaking idiots.

  13. Fehr: “The NHLPA and the NHL met today to discuss many of the key issues. We look forward to resuming talks tomorrow.”

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