Sad Fall Of The Islanders

Of course it is unofficial but the New York Islanders may be the first Eastern Conference team to be eliminated from playoff contention. Unless they go on an unexpected long winning streak, the Islanders are playing for a top draft choice next year.

It is a bitter outcome for a franchise that finally won a playoff round (against Florida) for the first time in eons of years. At the end of last season after the playoff victory, it seemed that if ownership and management made the right moves, the Islanders would finally enter the ranks as true Stanley Cup contenders. Instead the Islanders lost talent and now find themselves near the bottom of the whole league.

It would be tempting to place the blame on the players, coaching, management, and even the ownership. Unfortunately the Islanders problems run deeper than that. The very environment in which the Islanders dwell bears a heavy share of the blame.

This situation is even more sad when one remembers the glorious history of the Islanders. They joined the league in 1972 and immediately set the then record for worst expansion team in NHL history. But the Islanders hired Al Arbour as coach and in only their third NHL season, the Islanders became the fastest expansion team (still a record) to become a true Stanley Cup contender.

There followed a steady path to the top when Islander ownership and management, headed by General Manager Bill Torrey seldom made an error. First Denis Potvin was drafted, then Bryan Trottier, and Mike Bossy followed. Smart trades filled in the holes. In 1980 the Islanders finally won the Stanley Cup and began four invincible years as champion. Only two previous Montreal Canadiens teams have managed to win four Stanley Cups in a row or better. It took the mighty Edmonton Oilers led by Wayne Gretzky, in their third attempt to stop the Islanders streak. No other American expansion team has done so well. No other NHL team has come close to the Islanders streak since.

But once the glory years ended the Islanders tumbled to the bottom of the league and have mostly stayed there ever since. They seldom had star players on their roster. The current star, John Tavares is probably the Islanders best player since the dynasty.

The two main reasons for this state of affairs are probably the arena and the environment. Once the glory years were over, the Islanders reverted to being the poor cousins of the New York Rangers. They would be joined in this status by the New Jersey Devils across the river. Ironically since joining the league, both teams have done better than the original Manhattan resident Rangers. Both the Islanders and Devils more than merit better status among New York hockey fans than the New York Rangers but they retain the shabby status of being a hockey after-thought to this day. Is the greater New York area of 19 million residents big enough for three NHL teams? All things point to the answer, “no”.

After the glory years, the Islanders more than merited a new, modern, larger arena, but nothing would be done. The Islander tradition, heritage and success would be belittled and forgotten. In 2014, the Islanders moved to the new Barclay arena in Brooklyn which incredibly is even smaller than their old arena which was the second smallest in the NHL, ahead of only Winnipeg. Even more ridiculous is that over 1000 seats are considered “obstructive view”. No wonder attendance this year is so low.

A sports arena is part of a franchise’s team. A too-small arena that cannot generate enough revenue means that ownership and management cannot sign enough star players to build a credible team. If they cannot do that, the franchise will never be able to become a champion and might as well not be in the league. It is shabby treatment for a team with such a glorious heritage.

Incredibly the Islanders still cannot sell out the Barclay’s arena. Currently they have the second worst attendance in the NHL, ahead of only Carolina. They average 12.5 thousand fans a game, which is only 80% capacity of the arena. There is talk of building yet another new arena in Queens. Would that end the image of the Islanders being the poor relation of the Rangers?

In any sports situation where things are going sour, there is usually an answer to the situation. Get rid of the players, fire the coach, replace the incompetent general manager and upper management, make the cancerous owner sell. But many of the Islander problems may be beyond the capacity of even the ownership. Do the New York fans even want the Islanders and Devils (who have the sixth worst attendance record)?

If the New York fans do not want these teams, there are plenty of cities who do, most notably Quebec. One year a large delegation of Quebec fans journeyed down en-masse and bought a large quantity of unsold Islander tickets to show their determination to get back in the NHL. But a new Quebec team would have a Nordiques logo, not an Islander one. Other cities that may be in the hunt for an NHL franchise are Hamilton, Seattle (if it can solve its arena and ownership problem), Portland, Saskatoon, Milwaukee, and possibly Houston, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City.

But after the glorious history of the Islanders it would be a black mark on the NHL if the team left New York. Not to see the Long Island logo in the NHL any more would be a terrible blow to the league. It is one thing for inglorious Atlanta to go to Winnipeg. It is quite another for a team with such a history and heritage to leave. It would be a terrible blow to the status of the NHL in the United States which has been trying since Commissioner Gary Bettman’s appointment to prove to everyone (particularly to American television networks in order to get a rich contract) that the NHL is a “big 4″ American professional sports league.

True that since the dynasty years, the Islanders have iced bad teams, but New York fans have stuck with the Rangers who at times have done far worse. Since the Islanders and Devils have joined the NHL, the score in Stanley Cups reads Islanders 4, Devils 3, Rangers 1. Why the Islanders and Devils are unpopular after such successes is one of the NHL’s mysteries.

As noted above, trading players, firing coaches and management, and getting rid of incompetent owners seem to be easy solutions compared to the situation the Islanders are in. The previous sentence I wrote implies an obvious answer to franchise problems. But the Islander problem is even worse. For them there is no immediate, obvious answer. Is a new, modern, larger, more convenient arena the solution? For the second-status New York Islanders, it had better be.

Hartford Should Go All The Way

It might finally happen. The first tangible steps to getting the Hartford Whalers back in the NHL. In December, there was a proposal to renovate the 41 year old XL center to a more than adequate NHL 19,000 seats which would cost $250 million.

Is this really worth it? The two initial questions to be asked are would Hartford get back in the NHL and should Hartford build a new arena instead.

With a proper arena, Hartford would have no problem getting back in the NHL BUT they have to have a credible owner lined up. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg and offered them reasonable terms to get back into the NHL: a credible owner, a proper arena, and a great fan base.

Winnipeg came back by buying the unwanted Atlanta Thrasher franchise and Quebec built a new arena and is now knocking at the door. (Quebec’s problem is that the potential bidder made inappropriate racist remarks about a member of the NHL Board and the league finds him unsuitable. Gary Bettman may be currently looking for a new owner behind the scenes.) The door remains open for Hartford as well. There is no problem with a fan base and market. Hartford shares the entire New England market with Boston including the large city of Providence. Hartford also has great rivalries with the Boston Bruins, Montreal, a returned Quebec, the New York City area teams and possibly with Buffalo and Ottawa as well.

The key question is about cost and what you are getting. Are you willing to spend $250 million on a facility for minor league teams? $250 million sounds like major league money so if it is the NHL you really want, you had better start solving the ownership problem right now. And the main deterrent to that solution is that Gary Bettman and the NHL dumped an unexpected $500 million entry fee on potential bidders that scared off 14 applicants leaving only fanatical Quebec and Las Vegas left. Obviously most of the business world considers a $500 million fee to be too excessive for an NHL franchise. Whoever wants to own a returned Whalers had better be exceedingly rich and believe in the team and the market.

Furthermore, city officials and Hartford businesses see the renovation as a means of reviving business and the downtown core. How much are minor league teams going to draw fans downtown? If the future of the city is tied up with this renovation which seems to be implied, it is major league hockey that is required so it is imperative to get the ownership issue solved and in place before any construction is started or else you will have a mess like Quebec currently has.

HartfordThat brings up the next issue, renovation or new arena. It has been estimated that it would cost about $500 million for a new Hartford arena but is this true? Unfortunately greed, corruption and unexpected factors play too great a part in the construction of new stadiums and arenas. Edmonton’s new arena cost $480 million; the new Las Vegas arena is $375 million and the Videotron in Quebec cost $370 million, a variation of over $110 million.

And renovation is the same way. To put matters in perspective, when Jim Balsille tried to buy the Arizona Coyotes and move them to Hamilton, the Hamilton city council planned to vote $50 million to raise an NHL acceptable 17,000 seat arena to a more than adequate 18,500 facility. Why does it cost 5 times as much to renovate the XL Center than it does to upgrade an arena in Hamilton? Why is the cost of a new Hartford arena $130 million more than a similar arena in Quebec? Before any plan is approved, responsible Hartford public officials had better get answers.

There is one final major question, who do you want it for. Building a new arena automatically puts Hartford not only in line for an NHL team but an NBA basketball team as well. Do you want both major league hockey and basketball? Having two tenants to share the cost and draw fans to the downtown area might make a big difference than just one team.

So what route should Hartford go? If the cost of a new arena can be kept at the level of Quebec and Las Vegas or cheaper, I would vote to spend an additional $120 million on a completely new building which will be more attractive in drawing fans and hopefully last longer than the XL Center. Compared to Hamilton, the cost of renovating a 41 year old building is ridiculous but it is better than nothing. And go for both the NHL and NBA, not minor league teams. Get the ownership and arena issues solved and Hartford will have at least the Whalers back soon. The NHL wants them.

NHL 2016-17 Season Second Quarter Report

It is now approximately half way through the NHL season and the second quarter of the current campaign was quite different from the first. In the first quarter, the pattern was mostly Win 3 Lose 1, 2-2, 1-2, 2-1, etc. In the second quarter what occurred was the dramatic long winning streak. Three teams, Columbus, Minnesota, and Philadelphia hit double digit figures, with Columbus nearly setting a new NHL record. Several teams soared into playoff positions or at least made themselves contenders again.

Among the teams that experienced significant long winning streaks were:

East: Columbus, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Toronto

West: Minnesota, San Jose, Calgary, Vancouver

Here are other things to note during this period:

Still the teams to beat

Defending champion Pittsburgh in the east and 3 time champion Chicago in the west are still the teams to bet on despite the obvious improvement of many other teams. They are the safe choices for bettors.

Out of the picture

Colorado and Arizona are the first teams to be completely out of the playoffs (unless they start playing like the streaking teams listed above). They are now contending with Las Vegas for a high draft choice next year.

Show me

Despite the impressive winning streaks, Minnesota and Washington still have to prove themselves. They have done this before in the regular season. Now they have to play like this in the playoffs. Neither of them has even reached the conference final and Minnesota has yet to beat a true contender in a playoff round. Smile and pat them on the back for what they have done this quarter but the true test comes at the end of the season.

Winner of the second big trade

When Edmonton traded Taylor Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson the results were almost even in the first quarter. But the second quarter has declared a clear winner. New Jersey dropped out of a playoff position while Edmonton still has a good record and is in the middle of the playoff pack.

Nightmare quarter

Besides Arizona and Colorado, New Jersey had a second quarter as horrendous as their first quarter was good. They were playing excellent hockey at the beginning and were solid playoff contenders when Hall was briefly injured, came back, and then the team played horrible hockey and dropped out of a playoff position. The defense, usually the strength of the Devils is now one of the worst in the league. The playoffs are still within reach, but unless they turn things around, that chance could disappear in the third quarter.


1. Injured with a bag over his head

It was bad enough when Montreal Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin decided to go hunting for culprits who failed to respond when star goaltender Carey Price got injured last year. It was even worse when Bergevin decided that the main culprit was P. K. Subban, singled him out, and traded him to Nashville for Shea Weber. It is sickening when Weber is thriving in Montreal, Bergevin being hailed as a genius for his astute trade, while Subban struggles on the ice and gets injured. It is horrible when Nashville which was now supposed to be a true Stanley Cup contender may not even make the playoffs while Montreal is near the top of its conference. Poor Subban has nowhere to hide. As of now he can be blamed for the downfall of Montreal last year and Nashville this year. He could not have had a more horrible spell cast upon him. If you see someone walking down a Nashville street with a paper bag covering his head, you know who it is.

2. Playing with a bag over his head

Taylor Hall, now of the New Jersey Devils got injured frequently and could not play defense which made him expendable by Edmonton. This year he got injured off and on, he is a -7, and the Devils whose strength was usually defense are now -29, the worst in the Eastern Conference. They have dropped out of a playoff position while Hall’s old team, the Oilers, are now in the middle of the playoff pack in the west including a recent defeat of the Devils on their own ice. Adam Larrson, whom the Oilers got from the Devils is an even 0. Interestingly, Ryan Nugent Hopkins, another number one NHL draft pick for the Oilers is even worse than Hall at a horrible -12, the worst on the team, proving that almost all the number one draft picks whom the Oilers have drafted over the past decade cannot play or even be taught how to play defense and have been like liabilities instead of assets.

3. Watching with bags over their heads

All those expert predictors at who said before the season started that Subban was the final piece of the puzzle for Nashville and predicted that the Predators would end up in the Stanley Cup Final.

Executive nightmare

Poor Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman believed his team was a legitimate Stanley Cup contender (so did I) so he signed all his top stars to contracts to win right now. Then Mr. Brittle, Steve Stamkos got injured again, the team has failed to rally in the same manner the Montreal Canadiens failed to rally last year when Carey Price got injured and now there is a real chance that Tampa Bay may not make the playoffs.

So what, nothing came of it

Florida Panthers became the first team to fire their coach, Gerard Gallant, despite having a winning record. General Manager Tom Rowe took over and the team is neither better nor worse than when they were under Gallant. The only benefit to Florida is that Gallant’s salary is off the books. He is now a leading contender to be hired as a coach next year.

Hanging in

Ottawa Senators may have lost their best player, goaltender Craig Anderson because he is at home caring for his wife who has cancer. But the Senators are still hanging on to a playoff position.

Frustrated by circumstances beyond his control

John Tavares of the New York Islanders helped his team to finally win a playoff round for the first time in eons last year. The Islanders seemed poised to join the top eastern teams as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender if they made the right moves during the off season. But the Islanders play in the smallest, worst arena, the Barclay Center, in the league, the only one that actually has obstructed view seats for hockey spectators. Unlike the glory years, the Islanders now lose talent during the off season instead of the acquiring it and cannot afford to build a legitimate contender around Tavares. Ominously, the Islanders played the two worst teams in the league back to back, the Avalanche and the Coyotes and lost both games. The playoffs are still within reach but the Islanders may be the first eastern team to drop out of playoff contention.

Dream trade for the Tampa Bay Lightning

Swapping “Mr. Brittle” Steve Stamkos for Tavares.

Major stumblebum disappointments

Boston, Tampa Bay, Nashville and Dallas were all expected to be better than they are. They are not playing bad hockey but are fumbling along with one-step-forward-two steps back, two-steps-forward-one step-back, etc. records. Meanwhile the streakers have zoomed by them or are in position to legitimately challenge for a playoff position. These teams need to go on win streaks themselves or they may not make the playoffs, something nobody believed when the season started.

Show some support

Last time I checked, Columbus had the sixth worst attendance in the league, with just over 15,000 patrons per game or 82% capacity. The win streak brought about this “improvement” because before it they were the fourth worst in the league with only 75%. Come on fans, show some support for this team. If you can’t support a winner, Quebec (and a few other cities) want a team badly and are waiting…

Poor role model

That wonderful dessert team, Arizona Coyotes whom the NHL fought to the death to keep in Phoenix and out of Hamilton, Ontario is already out of playoff contention, has the second worst record in the NHL, and as usual has one of the worst attendance records in the league. Now comes news that in suburban Glendale where the Coyotes play, the city council wants to be rid of the Coyotes and have an arena without a tenant and that the Coyotes may move across the city to suburban Tempe into a yet to  be built new arena. This is a wonderful example for the NHL’s newest dessert team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Keep a stiff upper lip Bill Foley and Gary Bettman.

Still waiting…

All quiet on the Quebec City front.

Final Appraisal Of 2017 World Junior Championship: A Bit More Honesty

Thanks to the press conference just before the medal round games, hosted by IIHF Hockey President Rene Fasel, Hockey Canada President and CEO Tom Renney and Hockey Canada COO Scott Smith, there was a bit of honesty that was missing during the recently revived World Cup of Hockey where NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director talked about international hockey’s dreams but not about its significant problems to make those dreams a reality. Among the significant problems which the Triumvirate at least touched on:

1. High ticket prices.

The Triumvirate admitted to high prices but claims all the money is spent on investing in hockey for children.

2. Hockey means more to Canada than anywhere else.

Where are the next two WJHC going to be held? In Buffalo right next to the Canadian border and British Columbia.

3. The best training for young hockey players in the world is Canada and the CHL.

When asked about returning the tournament to Europe Fasel admitted that European boys would rather play in Canada “than to play at home where junior hockey isn’t so popular”. He might have added for the CHL to admit more Europeans so that they could get better training, get better experience playing more frequently against Canada’s best juniors, and to be better prepared to enter the NHL.

4. Competitive Balance.

Fasel admitted that Latvia was not as competitive as it should be (including the usual 10-2 drubbing by Canada) but remained optimistic. Next year Belarus will be given an opportunity to try and make a dent in the “traditional big 7″.

The above admissions were at least partial honesty. But what was NOT said was even more significant.

1. High ticket prices.

Exactly how is this money being spent? Where does it go? It isn’t correcting the competitive imbalance between the “big 7″ and the rest of the world.

2. Hockey means more to Canada than anywhere else.

European boys would rather play in Canada “than to play at home where junior hockey isn’t so popular”. That says it all. That is an admission that competitive hockey is not being developed properly elsewhere. That is an admission that European hockey will always lag behind Canada and hinders the growth of international hockey. Time for a serious overhaul. What are you going to do about it?

3. The best training for young hockey players in the world is Canada and the CHL.

Here are a couple of statistics we would like to know. How many members of the victorious American team play in the CHL? How many members of the European teams play there? If you have to send your best young players to your arch-enemy Canada to get proper training, your own development programs are not doing the job.

4. Competitive Balance

It has been four decades since Canada-USSR in 1972 and the “big 7″ remain the “big 7″ and not the big 10 or better. Europeans want to increase the number of teams 12, (that would be better) but you can’t do that until you do something about the quality of hockey at the “B level” and below. Significantly there were no concrete plans announced by the Triumvirate to improve the quality of hockey outside of the “big 7″ just like there were none announced by Bettman and Fehr during the World Cup. Increasing the quality of play so that there is a “big 10″ or better would be a real revolution in international hockey but nobody seems to have a clue about what to do or be bothered to find a way to do it. And as long as that non-action will be around, the growth of hockey will be retarded.

Here are some of the other significant results of this year’s WJHC:

1.  Shocking fall of the champions

Finland which won two of the last three WJHC nearly got regulated. The main problem was they could not score goals. Perhaps too many of their top juniors have now graduated to the NHL (symbolized by Patrik Laine joining Winnipeg) for their system to replenish. But Finland felt it so deeply that they did the almost unprecedented thing and fired their head coach before the last round-robin game which they subsequently won. One hopes for a comeback next year.

2. Doesn’t belong

Latvia was non-competitive during the entire tournament, a black mark not so much about the Latvian boys who were trying their best but about four decades of doing nothing to improve the quality of hockey outside of the traditional big 7. Next year Belarus gets a chance to show if they can escape this ignominy.

3. 7A and 7B

Switzerland and Denmark showed some competitiveness but in the end were eliminated in the first playoff round. If the powers that be would do something to help these two countries get over the hump permanently, future tournaments would have a “big 9″ instead of a “big 7″ where Switzerland and Denmark would have a real chance to win a medal if not the entire tournament. In the entire 40 years of the WJHC, the ONLY non-big 7 medal was a measly bronze by Switzerland in 1998. Congratulations on spreading the growth of hockey.

4. Divided you fall

Maybe the Czechs and the Slovaks are happier having their own countries but since they decided to split, they have done virtually nothing at the junior hockey level. Slovakia collected a bronze medal in 2015. The last time either of these countries amounted to anything significant was 2001 when the Czech Republic won the tournament.

5. At the junior level at least, the gap is closing on Canada

Unlike the top level of competition during the Sidney Crosby era, (16 straight Canadian wins since 2010) especially during the recent World Cup in which the national teams of the other big 7 countries played horrible hockey and hybrid Team Europe made the finals, at the junior level, some of the countries played competitive hockey. The United States won the tournament (In contrast to the World Cup where they could not win a game.) and Russia and Sweden iced competitive teams. Canada has only won this tournament once since 2010. One expects a comeback by Finland. One would love to believe the Czechs and the Slovaks will finally get their acts together after nearly 20 years of mediocrity. One wistfully would like to believe that the powers that be will do something to get Switzerland and Denmark over the hump so that they can really compete.

6. Get rid of shoot-outs in the medal rounds

Shoot-outs in hockey like penalty kicks in soccer are a sucky way to end dramatic competition. At least in the Final game, play like they do during the NHL playoffs, extra periods until somebody scores. Congratulations to the United States on winning the tournament but it would have been better if they had won the last game by other means.

The final summary of this year’s tournament is that except for the victory of the United States and the fall of Finland, it was more of the same. The Triumvirate at least talked about some of the problems in international hockey but significantly declined to offer any solutions. What they did not say was more significant than what they did say. When that changes, international hockey will change for the better.

Bill Foley Is Taking A BIG Gamble

Well it’s Bill Foley’s dream or potential nightmare. The owner of the new Las Vegas Golden Knights made his dream come true when the NHL made Las Vegas its 31st franchise. Whether you are a Canadian who feels Canada has been slighted again by the NHL by not also accepting Quebec (Actually the NHL’s rejection of Quebec has nothing to do with Las Vegas though many websites seem to think so. Quebec was rejected because the NHL deems the potential owner unsuitable.), or a fan from an American city that has traditionally enjoyed hockey but still does not have an NHL franchise (Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee), one can only wish him and the Golden Knights well. They are taking a BIG, BIG chance.

To start with, the franchise entry fee is atrocious. When the franchise entry fee was announced at an obscene $500 million, the NHL had 16 potential bids but the entry fee whittled the numbers down to only fanatical Las Vegas/Foley and Quebec. The North American business world might well question the sanity of the two bidders. This “big 4″ expansion may be the only one in history where no rival cities were bidding against each other and the league involved had to accept whatever it could get. The $500 million fee is over 6 times the amount of the last NHL expansion in 2000 which was $80 million. Obviously the North American business world does not believe that an NHL franchise is currently worth anywhere near $500 million.

But Foley does and he let his money do the talking. He has a few things in his favor. If the season ticket drive is to be believed and is credible, he is off to a good start as far as building a fan base. Las Vegas is virgin territory as far as the major professional sports leagues go so he has no competition from the NFL, MLB, or NBA. He may also have good traditional rivals in Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose.

But he has a lot of potential strikes against him. Las Vegas is the only market in which sports have to compete against human vices, in this case gambling and prostitution which are both legal in Nevada. No other sports franchise in North America has to compete with these potential deterrents.

But even without these problems, Las Vegas is the type of city so often chosen during NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure. When it comes to expansion and relocation, Bettman has selected mostly American cities that have had no contact with hockey in their history. This was done primarily to impress American television networks that NHL hockey was a “big 4″ American sport and that by introducing the game all over the United States without heed to where it might be successful, it would be possible to get a rich, American television network contract. Some of these cities were successful and Bettman can take a well-earned bow, but the markets with the worst attendance are franchises like Raleigh, Miami, Phoenix, and Columbus where hockey is like an alien element. Las Vegas fits that pattern perfectly. One such market, Atlanta, has already been declared dead for the second time and moved north to Winnipeg.

Now comes worse news. The Arizona Coyotes, the NHL’s other “desert team”, one of Las Vegas’s potential close rivals, are in trouble again and may have to move to the other side of Phoenix at Tempe, Arizona in a yet-to-be-built arena. It is not a good omen for success in Las Vegas.

You have to admire Foley’s pluck (and question his sanity) to make his dream come true. Let’s hope the Golden Knights become one of the NHL’s better franchises and not another Phoenix. In the city that loves the high roller, right now Bill Foley is unquestionably the biggest gambler of all.

Happy Birthday Canada: You Still Only Have 7 NHL Teams

2017 is Canada’s Sesquicentennial (150 years) and the Centennial of the NHL which Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL Board intend to celebrate all through the year. In 1917 the NHL was an all-Canadian affair. 50 years later in 1967, there were 4 American teams to 2 Canadian and then 10 American to 2 Canadian. Today the score is Am 31 Can 7.

Should there be more NHL Canadian teams? Unquestionably. Why are there no more? Two of the answers are obvious. The United States is more wealthy and has a larger population. Fair enough. Unless there is a dramatic shift in climate accompanied by a mass migration north, or a war of conquest by Canada, the United States is bound to have more teams. But only 7 Canadian teams. Only 7?

Are any more Canadian cities feasible right now? Quebec is the 7th largest city in Canada and built a beautiful new arena but they got turned down by the NHL in 2016. Hamilton has a suitable NHL arena which the city council will modify further if they are awarded a team. There is the possibility of second Montreal and third southern Ontario teams too. And in the long run, a Saskatchewan team probably located in Saskatoon. Right now there is the possibility of 4 new teams, making a total of 11.

Quebec (twice under different names) and Hamilton were once members of the NHL. So was a second Montreal team, the Maroons. And when the NHL was competing against the champion of the western leagues, Western Canada Hockey League, and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (which also contained franchises in Portland and Seattle [the first American city to win the Stanley Cup], American cities that somehow still do not have an NHL franchise) for the Stanley Cup, franchises from Victoria, New Westminster, Regina, Saskatoon, and Moose Jaw were competing at the highest professional level. In 1907, the little town of Kenora won the Stanley Cup. That is at least 9 more Canadian franchises in professional hockey history. It proves that professional hockey at the highest level has shrunk in Canada, not grown. It confirms that Canada is under-represented in the present NHL.

The first NHL American team, the Boston Bruins, did not join the league until 1924. Big money and then the Depression whittled the number of Canadian teams down to two by 1940. But bad economic times, an increase in operating expenses to own and run a professional hockey team, and a difference in population do not tell the complete story of why there is only 7 teams in the present NHL. Three ugly Canadian traits, greed, elitism, and bad faith do.

When the first expansion of the league occurred in 1967, it was assumed that Vancouver would be one of the new teams. But Vancouver’s franchise became the St. Louis Blues, much to the howling of fans right across Canada. It seems that the franchise owners from Toronto and Montreal did not want to share Canadian television money or the Canadian market with anyone else. Vancouver would finally get its franchise three years later in 1970. But the ugly pattern of excluding new Canadian teams led by existing Canadian franchise owners had begun.

It is a myth, held by many Canadians to this day that NHL American franchise owners led by NHL American leaders John Ziegler, and Gary Bettman are anti-Canadian and do not want more Canadian franchises. Nothing could be further from the truth. At every point in NHL expansion history, we see Canadians showing bad faith, no generosity, and thwarting and excluding other Canadians.

After seeing the difficulty of adding new Canadian franchises to the NHL by the Vancouver episode, other rich Canadians abandoned the idea of buying their way into the NHL. Instead with American partners, they sought to compete against the NHL by starting a new league, the WHA. The NHL franchises of the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, and the would-be-returned Quebec Nordiques were born.

The Canadian franchise owners of the WHA had a very different attitude to adding new Canadian teams than their NHL counterparts. The best attendance for the WHA came from Canadian cities. The very survival of the WHA depended on them. Edmonton so believed in the Oilers that they built the modern Northlands Coliseum before the NHL-WHA merger which would be their home until 2016. At one time Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto would briefly have WHA teams. There would even be a Canadian division set up.

As player salaries skyrocketed, there was pressure to merge the leagues. The main opponents were Canadian Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard and ex-Canadian Jack Kent Cooke of the Los Angeles Kings. So Canadian franchises were excluded from the NHL by Canadians until 1980 when the leagues merged. Today both Edmonton and Winnipeg are in the NHL and Quebec desperately wants to return.

After the merger, Calgary got its team the following year when the Flames became the first of two Atlanta franchises to flee to Canada. Hamilton built a modern arena and should have got a team until the bidder, Tim Donut, made the mistake of questioning the NHL’s expansion terms, and a returned Hamilton became a returned Ottawa Senators.

But in the bad economic times of the 1990s, Winnipeg and Quebec which had both refused to build modern, adequate arenas when they joined the NHL and tried to get by on the cheap, could no longer be feasible NHL franchises. No new Canadian owners believed in the teams or new arenas. This combination of bad economic times and bad faith would result in the shift of the Jets to Phoenix and the Nordiques to Denver.

Elitism, bad faith, and exclusion still keep Canadian NHL franchises to a minimum. They are traits that have been around since the beginning of Canadian history. New France was a society in which everyone knew his place. There was the Governor, Bishop, Intendant, a few appointed public officials, and seigneurs at the top and the mass of habitants at the bottom. The only escape was to become a renegade coureur de bois fur trader.

When the Conservative Loyalists fled from the United States after the American Revolution they simply created a British branch with these traits. After the War Of 1812, they passed legislation making it more difficult for Americans to immigrate to Canada and own land. In 1837, two rebellions were fought against elitist, oligarchic government in the two sections of Canada.

I have seen these traits in Canada almost every day of my life. In almost every job I would ever have in Canada, there would be somebody picking on somebody else. People who had positions would use their power to exclude others from promotions, salary increases and impose penalties making peoples’ lives miserable. The ugliest incident I would see occurred a few years ago. Ask the family of Rehtaeh Parsons who committed suicide what it is like when a group of elitist, exclusionists decide that someone “is not one of them”.

As for the NHL, Commissioner Gary Bettman turned down Quebecor’s bid to bring back the Nordiques without a second thought because its owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau, a known supporter of the provincial party Parti Quebecois which has twice tried to take Quebec out of Canada by referendum and passed discriminatory legislation against minority languages, made inappropriate, public, racist remarks about one of the NHL Board Of Governors, Geoff Molson, owner of the Montreal Canadiens. The NHL will not tolerate a public racist on its Board of Governors. Peladeau destroyed the dream of every Quebec Nordiques fan right across Canada by his exclusionary, elitist remarks.

The main reason why Hamilton or other potential second and third southern Ontario NHL franchise cities like second Toronto, Oshawa, Kitchener, and London do not have a team is the opposition of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres to having new, competitive franchises in their market. Other regions like New York-New York-New Jersey, Los Angeles-Anaheim, plus every similar situation in the NFL, NBA and MLB have managed to work something out. But in implacable Canada, all these potential NHL franchise cities remain excluded. The same elitist opposition will probably show itself should anyone try to bring back the Montreal Maroons. And of course should a future bid for a Saskatoon franchise or anywhere else in Canada appear, there will be grounds for exclusion on the basis of sharing television money.

In the United States, Bill Foley, the new owner of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, merely pays some money and signs a few papers to become an NHL franchise owner. In Canada, somebody’s rump has to be kissed repeatedly over and over. Is it any wonder why Gary Bettman and the NHL are reluctant to put new franchises in Canada? On the contrary, they would be fully justified on turning their backs forever on a country that consistently raises objections and opposition, shows little faith and refuses to respond in moments of crisis as what happened to Winnipeg and Quebec in the 1990s, and shows little generosity or willingness to share.

So happy 150th birthday Canada. Once you had the majority of teams competing for the Stanley Cup. But today it is 7. Only 7. Ask yourself why.

Last Chance For The Columbus Blue Jackets?

One of the more hopeful things to happen for the NHL so far in this season is the upward swing of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Since the start of the season, the Blue Jackets have been playing good steady hockey which has taken them to first place in the tough Eastern Conference. From 15th to the top of the standings in one year is quite an accomplishment. Nobody saw this coming. Coach John Tortorella is getting the Blue Jackets to play the way he failed to get Team USA play in the recent World Cup.

The problem IS that nobody saw this coming. The success of the Blue Jackets on the ice has not translated to success off the ice. Columbus is 4th last in attendance this season, averaging 13.5 thousand per game, approximately 75% capacity.

There are several reasons for this sad state of affairs. Columbus has always been a precarious franchise; more than once there has been talk of the franchise being moved. For starters, Columbus is located in what I have termed the “Death Valley” of major professional hockey, Ohio-Indiana.

This is a strange area for hockey. It is a northern United States climate, close to the Canadian border. For that reason alone it should be a hockey-loving area. Wrong. Ohio-Indiana is the graveyard of many NHL-WHA franchises from the 1970s. Who remembers the WHA Cleveland Crusaders, Indianapolis Racers, Cincinnati Stingers, and the NHL Cleveland Barons? Who remembers that the top two NHL scorers of all time, Wayne Gretzky, and (recently displaced by Jaromir Jagr) Mark Messier got their professional start in these cities? All these franchises folded within a few years because of horrible attendance. Strange though it may seem, the Columbus Blue Jackets are the most successful major professional hockey franchise in Ohio-Indiana history. They have lasted 16 years so far. (Note: See my article about Cleveland on this blog for more details about this.)

One of my colleagues on this blog, Amanda, wrote an article about the AHL champion Lake Erie Monsters (located near Cleveland) and complained that they were not getting the media coverage they deserved. By her account, the Monsters are actually surpassing the Blue Jackets in fan support. But the NHL with its memory of the horrible attendance of the Cleveland Barons hope the Monsters rest in obscurity. That is why when the NHL starts talking about expansion, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis are never mentioned. To date nobody can explain why hockey is so unpopular in an area so close to the Canadian border and located between such hockey loving cities as Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis in the west and Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the east.

But the low attendance for the Columbus Blue Jackets can be explained by more than the fact that they live in a cursed hockey area. Their horrible history has dampened the enthusiasm for many hockey fans and stunted the growth of hockey in Ohio-Indiana. In 16 years, the Blue Jackets have only made the NHL playoffs twice and have failed to win a playoff round. Maybe the low attendance can be explained by fans tired of false hopes and are saying “Show me” before jumping on the bandwagon.

Not only does Tortorella have to keep up this high standard of play during the regular season to attract more fans, he has to get this team over the hump to win at least one playoff round to make believers of the disillusioned. One other problem is that with the possible exception of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and defenseman Seth Jones, there are no stars on this team. This is a low-key team made up of cast-off players from other teams that is playing good, solid hockey. There are no big shooters to capture the imagination of the fans. Nobody realizes or believes that this is a good team. Most fans probably figure the Blue Jackets will collapse or bow out meekly in the first round of the playoffs. Hopefully aa fans continue to see the Blue Jackets win, they will start supporting the team.

What happens if the Blue Jackets continue to win during the regular season, do well in the playoffs and the fans still do not support the team? Well this is Death Valley for professional hockey and one more team leaving the area is nothing new. And unlike the Arizona Coyotes that the NHL does not want to move to the east because it will make the league conferences even more unbalanced, the Blue Jackets can be moved anywhere because they are an Eastern Conference team.

In the east, Quebec and Hamilton have arenas and they want a team. In the west, the NHL would not be sorry if the Blue Jackets landed in places like Portland, Milwaukee, Seattle, Houston or Kansas City.

So this may be the last chance for Blue Jackets to be a success in Columbus. If a successful team on the ice is still not enough to draw fans, maybe the owners will conclude that it is time to leave Death Valley like their predecessors did and play hockey elsewhere. It is said that Quebec is eying the Carolina Hurricanes if they cannot get an expansion team because currently Carolina has the worst attendance in the NHL and the owner wants to sell. But Quebec will gladly welcome the Blue Jackets instead if Death Valley adds one more notch to its belt.