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.