In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford and offered them terms for readmission to the NHL. All the terms made sense and were reasonable. They can be grouped into three general factors: A suitable NHL owner; a proper NHL size area; and a great fan base (no mention of a $500 million expansion fee).
So far Winnipeg is back; Quebec is trying (stuck at the ownership factor); and Hartford has yet to be heard from. But looking back all through Bettman’s time as Commissioner, it is obvious that he has frequently ignored his own wise, sensible factors, particularly the last one. This is because he and the NHL Board of Governors had one other overriding goal; to raise the status of the NHL in the United States to the level of the NFL, NBA, and MLB so that they could get a rich American television contract.
Bettman’s strategy was to make hockey appear to be “America’s winter game”. To create this illusion, he and the NHL allowed new franchises to be planted and old ones to be moved to many markets where hockey was an unfamiliar sport. It was like buying a new house and then planting seeds in different parts of a new, unfamiliar garden to see if they would grow.
So Quebec Nordiques were allowed to depart to Denver, the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix, Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, and the Hartford Whalers to Raleigh, North Carolina. New franchises came to San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, Minnesota, Nashville, Columbus, and Atlanta. Some of them were successful and Bettman can take a well-earned bow but there have been years when as many as 10 (including many older franchises) teams were losing money.
Near the bottom of this year’s attendance figures are many of the “usuals”; Carolina, Florida, Arizona (unfamiliar hockey markets); Columbus (The “Death Valley” of major league hockey. See my article on this blog about Cleveland and Ohio-Indiana); and the New York Islanders (bad arena).
Whether they were moved or granted expansion franchises, cites like Phoenix, Miami, Atlanta, Raleigh, and Columbus have obviously not had the crucial third factor that Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford had; a great fan base. Now a similar city, Las Vegas has been granted a new franchise. Will it follow the pattern of its desert cousin, Phoenix?
As for the goal of becoming a “big 4″ sport in the United States, the NHL did get better television deals from NBC and ESPN but not as good as baseball, basketball, and football. Hockey has grown in the United States but the NHL is still ranked number 4 among the four major sports leagues. NBC will still not show any Canadian teams as their game of the week unless they have to because Canadian television markets cannot be included in American television ratings.
Meanwhile the two areas where hockey was popular, Canada, and the northwestern United States, were consistently ignored as expansion sites. Except for a returned Minnesota, and possibly San Jose and Denver, none of the new franchises during Bettman’s time as Commissioner can be said to be cities where hockey was loved.
Ironically the NHL might have got a better American television deal if they had expanded into American hockey markets where the sport was popular instead of putting franchises into money-losing locations. Cities like Seattle, Portland, a returned Hartford, and Milwaukee still have no teams. Probably the NHL would be better off financially if these cities had been considered for expansion instead of the money losers listed above.
The worst and most embarrassing moment for the NHL and Bettman personally so far had to be the shift of the Atlanta Thrashers (the second time Atlanta lost an NHL franchise to a Canadian city) back to Winnipeg. The fight to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix and out of Hamilton was also a black mark. Now the latest rumors have the city of Glendale fed up with the Coyotes, an open desire to have them gone with no tenant in the arena and no fee to be paid to the NHL, and their potential shift across town to Tempe, Arizona if a new arena can be built.
All these unfortunate financial disasters would not have happened if Bettman and the NHL Board had followed their own wise advice and selected cities with a proven love for the game of hockey. Phoenix, Miami, Raleigh, and Columbus are still problems for the league while cities in the northwestern United States and Canada have their noses to the glass, on the outside looking in, and starve.