Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 4: Was Pro-American Policy The Best Choice For The NHL?

As mentioned in the previous article in this series, once American Gary Bettman was hired as Commissioner by the NHL, his main priority was to raise the stature of hockey in the United States and get a rich American television contract. He has succeeded to a limited extent. There are now more American NHL franchises; the NHL has a better American television contract than before, though nowhere as good as the other three “big 4″ North American sports; revenues are up; more young Americans are taking up the sport of hockey than ever before.

But was this the right path for the NHL to follow, cater to the United States? The NHL Board and Bettman would probably say “yes”. But there were other choices that could have been taken.

Take for example the path to the new American television contract. Bettman’s plan was to place new American franchises in unfamiliar markets to give American television at least the illusion that hockey was “America’s game” and merited a television contract on par with the NFL, the NBA, and MLB. But that meant ignoring three key American cities, Seattle, Milwaukee, and Portland where hockey has roots and where any new NHL franchise would be a sure money maker. He also allowed two existing American franchises that had roots in hockey, Minnesota and Hartford to be shifted elsewhere.

Would it have not been better, if the NHL had claimed its secure three new markets, and straightened out Hartford and Minnesota instead? Many of the new American teams lost and some continue to lose money, something that probably would not have happened in Seattle, Portland, and Milwaukee. And more people would probably watch the NHL in these three markets and in Hartford and Minnesota on American television which would mean better ratings and possibly a better American television contract than the current one. Let the debate begin.

But that is not the only other policy. Would it not have been better to pursue a more pro-Canadian policy? Sure there has always been opposition by NHL Canadian franchise owners about sharing Canadian markets and Canadian television revenue. But should it not be Bettman’s job to reign in the Canadian owners for the good of hockey and the good of the NHL? First came the embarrassment of having to shift Atlanta back to Winnipeg. And two major Canadian markets Quebec City and Hamilton/second southern Ontario (And possibly second Montreal) still have no teams, two sure money makers whose full revenue potential are not being tapped by the NHL.

Quebec has been put into suspension because Bettman and the NHL currently cannot find a suitable owner for a franchise. Hamilton is being excluded because Bettman and the NHL Board will not force Toronto and Buffalo to set some reasonable compensation package for a new franchise in their territory like what was done in New York and Los Angeles. Two more money makers are being lost while a questionable market, Las Vegas gets a team.

And a pro-Canadian policy does not end there. NHL revenues are up but a huge percentage of the growth comes from the 7 Canadian franchises, even with a bad Canadian dollar. Putting more teams into Canada, despite the elitist and selfish opposition of the Canadian franchise owners makes sound economic sense. And it is Canadian television, not American television that is the NHL’s biggest money maker. But it is American television that is allowed to call the shots. NBC and ESPN, not TSN and CBC dictate when playoff games are played. Should it not be the person who pays for the most freight who calls the tune?

And there is a third possible policy for the NHL, an international one. Since the 1970s, the NHL has steadily become more Europeanized. The NHL has recognized the growing importance of Europe but it has hardly tapped into its full potential. And the NHL gets hurt in several ways because it will not develop its potential European markets fully.

First there is the talent problem. Neither the NHL, nor any of the “big 7″ countries have done much to turn the “big 7″ into a “big 8″ or better. There are about a dozen European countries (now joined by South Korea) stuck at the notch of play (the “B-level”) just below the “big 7″ level. Raising the quality of play in these countries would increase the stature of hockey in the world. For Bettman, who recently brought back the World Cup and probably has hopes of raising its stature, the best way is to improve the quality of play of the “B-level” countries so that the World Cup is widened, more countries care about it, and its prestige grows.

He has a second good reason for improving the quality of play in the “B-level” countries. The NHL hopes to expand to becoming a 40 team league and with each expansion, the critics claim the talent level gets watered down. That would not happen if the quality of play of even a few of these “B-level” countries was improved. There would be a huge glut of new talent to draw from.

And the NHL would sell more of its merchandise in Europe and get better European television contracts if it catered more to its European fans. If American television is reluctant to recognize the importance of the NHL, go to Europe instead. If hockey means more to Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, and Finland than it does to the United States, those are the places to go.

And if it is the ultimate goal of the NHL to set up European divisions that compete for the Stanley Cup, why delay things? Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bratislava, Prague, Helsinki, and Stockholm are just as good markets as Milwaukee, Portland, Seattle, Hamilton, and Quebec. Soccer has learned to live quite nicely without undue importance on the United States. So can the NHL.

So there was more than one policy that could have been tried when Gary Bettman became the first NHL Commissioner. Things have improved since he became the boss. But did he and the NHL choose the best policy? Let the debate begin.


14 thoughts on “Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 4: Was Pro-American Policy The Best Choice For The NHL?

  1. I think that the owners also look at odds. Most Canadian cities metro other than Montreal and Toronto as small by U.S. standards.

    The largest non NHL is Quebec with with 800k which is number 8 ahead of Winnipeg at 775k.
    On the other hand too hit a US metro area its number 72 in Dayton,OH. Dayton I’m sure is a lovely place but I think that the owners see dollar signs. But as you said its not the population exactly its how rabid the fans are for the sport. I believe that Houston is the largest US city with out NHL and its 6.7M. Now Houston has a history with hockey as does Dayton. Oddly enough with the same team(the Aeros and the Arrows). I think sometimes they think 6.7m will surely we can find like 100k fans somewhere in there and that should be plenty.

  2. Thanks for commenting Josh. Quebec with a proper arena and a suitable owner is a sure money maker. It was a success in its early years in the NHL before high salaries, an economic depression and a weak Canadian dollar ruined things. Now with an urban population of 800,000 and a market that stretches from half way to Montreal all the way east including all the Maritime provinces, it can’t miss.

    Houston belongs in that second group of American cities I told you about. It is not as good as the 3 cities I’ve listed above, but it is certainly worth taking a chance on. It would also be a great rival for Dallas and would boost attendance and interest in hockey there.

    Dayton is in Ohio-Indiana where hockey is unpopular and therefore not to be trusted.

    • I was just using the population as a reason why they left. If you figure that if their is more people there is more money to spend on a sport. I was saying that a U.s. population equal to Quebec close to the same would be Dayton. I don’t think Dayton could support a NHL team there are likely not enough population which enough rabid fan to support it like your have in Quebec. Houston is a huge city however it seems that the city rabidness for the sport is not very high. So even if they put a team there it would likely we Arizona all over again.(not too different than I think LV is going to end up.) I suppose high salary before the cap couldn’t have helped things. There we many teams that spent too much and nearly killed themselves. Heck St. Louis nearly did it several times with all the HOF players they had. And yet no Cup. No wait they had several cups (presidents) just not the one they were looking for.

  3. Houston was a front-running city for an NHL team and somehow managed to blow it. They are the natural rival for Dallas. The NHL would take them in a minute if they ever managed a suitable bid.

    • I understand that but I believe that much like K.C. they have attempted to take a pulse of the city for hockey and it was worse than K.C. The percentage of people who cared or followed hockey in Houston was the lowest among all large cities in the U.S. I forgot where I read this but basically Houston could support it much like LA. They have a huge population so even if its like a small margin of fans compared to the total population they could make it work. Now I totally agree the NHL would jump as like you said they would have a natural rivalry in Dallas. As well as other teams like Colorado , St. Louis. Since these are cities they would know while playing in the NL in the MLB for 50 years.

  4. You’ve probably answered why Houston still doesn’t have a team, Josh. The owner of the WHA Aeros tried to get into the NHL on his own but failed. I’ll bet the NHL regrets not taking Houston now.

    • And while the WHA Aeros were the most successful team. The attendance wasn’t very good. Averaging 7319 per season. The AHL Aeros (now the Iowa Wild) Ave just 6023 from 2001 to 2013 . From 2013-2017 had 5852 per game. Why do I include this fact that the now that they are in Des Moines, Iowa they are 150 people down. Houston has a Metro population of 6.8 Million. Des Moines is 634000. Houston is 10 times larger and the attendance is nearly the same.

  5. I wouldn’t call the Houston Aeros the most successful WHA team, Josh. The best WHA teams were the ones who joined the NHL, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec, and New England (Hartford). Edmonton in fact believed in the Oilers so much that they built Northlands Coliseum, the arena that would be their NHL home BEFORE the NHL-WHA merger was agreed on. Houston in fact should have stuck with their 4 colleagues and insisted that they should also be included in any NHL-WHA merger instead of striking out on their own.

    Your attendance figures provide ample evidence about why Houston is still not in the NHL. The reasons I rank Houston so highly as a possible NHL expansion team are because they are such a wealthy city, they are the largest American city without an NHL franchise, it would impress the American television networks if Houston had a team, and they are Dallas’s best rival and would help attendance in that city if Houston had a team. For those reasons, the NHL wants Houston in the league badly. But I cannot ignore the poor fan base and the indifference to getting a team and to hockey in general. Seattle, Milwaukee, Portland, Hartford, and even Spokane in the long term are better American city choices than Houston.

    • Well I believe the most successful was in relation to the winning. I think that there are a load of cities that would be more successful that are smaller due to lack of other teams in the market. Like OKC the thunder surprised many by its attendance numbers. I think that there are plenty of cities up north that would do very well at much lower numbers. Also the AHL Aeros are the AHL and the AHL is not the NHL. So the numbers in the 1970’s likely would not be the same today. AHL Hershey Bears were the tops last year with an ave 9300 people in the stands. The NHL’s worst and rather terrible is the Carolina Hurricanes at 11700. The year before that it was 10k. I had to go back to 99-00 The NYI had an average 9748. So those number are all a little off. Houston may welcome a top tier hockey club. As compared to a minor league

  6. Oklahoma was a failed NHL applicant back in 2000, just like Houston. Like Houston, it is one of those American cities, I might take a chance on. I think its minor league team is doing very well. Lots of northwestern American cities, plus Hartford would do better than Houston. I listed them for you in my last reply.

    I’d like to think that Carolina will do well again once it has a winning team. They have had bad teams since they won the Stanley Cup with no star players. They showed improvement last year and if they get a good draft and do well this off season, they may have a playoff contender next year.

    • I was just saying that much like in Canada city sizes don’t matter if you have enough fans that are rabid about the sport you can make it work. I totally agree that the north west is where they need to expand as well as Quebec and Hartford.

  7. I agree with you Josh. Size doesn’t matter as much as the enthusiasm. Believe it or not in the CFL, small Regina (app. 200,000) easily outdraws Toronto (6 million). It’s the spirit that counts.

  8. It’s an ugly situation the CFL finds itself in Toronto, Josh and it dates back to the time the Blue Jays won the World Series. After the Jays won, the snobs in Toronto took it into their heads that they were now a “world class”, “big league” city. If we can win the big one in baseball, we want to also win the big one in hockey, basketball and football they thought. And the “big one” in football meant the Super Bowl, not the Grey Cup. So they turned against the CFL as being “minor league” and desired that Toronto get an NFL team. Attendance to Toronto Argonaut games fell and have been low since.

    They have never come close to getting an NFL team. One quarter of the season ticket holders of the Buffalo Bills come from Canada. Ralph Wilson, the late owner of the Bills used to make one home game in Rich Stadium “Canada Day”. Then he entered into partnership with Canadian Ted Rogers to play one Buffalo home game a year in Toronto so that he could tap the rich Canadian market more effectively, (Toronto is a much more wealthy city than Buffalo.) But the arrogant NFL which despises foreigners charged ticket prices so high that even the most fanatical Toronto NFL fan had to think twice before buying them. The games never came close to selling out. The NFL figured that “ignorant Canadians” would mindlessly pay any price to see an NFL game in Toronto. That dampened enthusiasm for the NFL but the CFL still has not recovered its loss of status.

    Internationally, the snobs tried a few times to get the Olympic Games but the best they could do was get the 2015 Pan Am games which thanks to corruption, came in over budget.

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