Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 9: Two Current Hot Potato Arena Issues Have To Be Favorably Resolved

It was bad enough that the transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg because no investors wanted them showed the low status of NHL hockey in the United States as compared to the NFL, MLB, and the NBA, but two more problems that will do the same are still on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plate and have not gone away. Neither the Arizona Coyotes, nor the New York Islanders are set for the long term for where they will play. The Islanders play in the worst arena in the league, the Barclay’s Center where the ice is bad, there is obstructed view seating for hockey, and has the second smallest seating capacity in the NHL.

In Arizona’s case, they have been like a lame-duck franchise from the very beginning, and now nobody in the area wants to spend any more money building new arenas for a franchise that has had only one decent season where they challenged for the Stanley Cup in their entire history. Both Bettman and the Glendale citizens have publicly stated they are finished with each other, Glendale even admitting its preference to have an arena with no tenants that is only 13 years old.

coyotes

Bettman has stated that he wants the Coyotes to continue in Phoenix and a few years ago blocked Jim Balsille’s attempt to move the team to Hamilton. But how much longer can the Coyotes continue in Phoenix? Tempe refused to build an arena that would have been the third smallest in the NHL and the Arizona state legislature is unlikely to spend money on such an undistinguished franchise after the Glendale debacle.

Actually moving the Coyotes to another American city or even using them to solve the Quebec/Hamilton problems would not be that bad a blow. The only sufferers would be local fans who have genuinely embraced the game of hockey. Hockey has never taken off much there and it can be said it was the NHL’s fault for coming there in the first place instead of choosing markets in both the United States and Canada where there were was substantial enthusiasm for the game. Perhaps Phoenix’s best legacy will be inspiring last year’s number one draft choice, Auston Matthews to take up the sport.

But it is still another visual reminder of the NHL’s low status in the United States. It’s a definite blow to getting an American television contract that is the equivalent to what the NFL, NBA, and MLB gets. And it’s another forced move like Atlanta. Nobody except local fans are going to mourn the disappearance of the inglorious Coyotes but the fact they had to leave town says it all. And moving the Coyotes to another city would also mean the loss of another potential $500 million expansion fee.

But much more damaging would be the disappearance of the New York Islanders who are the only American franchise to win four consecutive Stanley Cups and until this year, were tied with Pittsburgh for most Stanley Cup victories by an American expansion team. Moving inglorious teams who have done nothing to distinguish themselves, like Atlanta and Phoenix is one thing, but the disappearance of the Islanders would be a serious loss of face for the NHL.

islanders

Since their golden years, the Islanders have been treated very shabbily. They needed a new and larger arena long ago, but nothing has been done and now the very existence of the team is at stake. The team can only be a lame duck team at best unless a proper arena is built; without a new facility, the Islanders will be unable to afford star players and build contending teams. As time passed the Nassau Coliseum became the second smallest arena in the NHL and the Barclay’s Center is even worse. The team is now like an also-ran compared to the New York Rangers.

Both Quebec and Hartford would take the Islanders in an instant. Quebec once snapped up a large block of Islander tickets and a large contingent of fans attended an Islander game in order to demonstrate to the NHL that they wanted the Nordiques back. And earlier this year, Hartford announced plans to renovate the XL Center with $250 million and the Hartford mayor and the Connecticut state governor sent a letter to the Islanders ownership inviting them to become a renewed Whalers once the renovation was complete.

The disappearance of the Islanders would be a bitter blow to the NHL. It’s hard to claim equality with the other three leagues, to make pretensions that NHL hockey is an “American game”, to hope for a substantial increase in American television revenue if one of your most glorious teams disappears because of indifference. Bettman would smile and put a brave face on it but everyone would know the real meaning if the Islanders disappeared. And of course another potential $500 million expansion fee would go with them.

These are two test cases for the NHL. Nobody questions the status of the NFL, NBA, and MLB in the United States, but the issue is very much alive for the NHL. How they resolve these two potentially damaging issues will say a lot about the status of the NHL in the United States now, and may significantly affect the policy direction of the league for the future.

 

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Quebec City Back In The NHL? Follow The Path Of Foley, Thomson, And Chipman

So Quebec City is still stuck at the ownership factor after more than a year. Off and on for this past time, I have been writing about the Quebec situation and its absurdity. How Las Vegas that hardly knows hockey and has never had a major league team in any sport and has a smaller arena can get an NHL franchise easily while fanatical hockey bed Quebec City is still on the outside looking in.

Is the problem the “anti-Canadian” NHL led by insensitive American majority Board members fronted by an American “anti-Canadian Commissioner? Is it the greedy owners of the 7 Canadian franchises who don’t want to share the Canadian market and Canadian television money with Quebec City and can’t be reigned in? Is it NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s “traditional” policy of awarding expansion and relocation teams to strange “non-hockey” American markets in order to impress American television networks to get a better contract while ignoring fanatical markets in Canada and the northwestern United States?

The answer is “no”, especially in the case of Quebec City. Bettman himself is not anti-Canadian though most Canadians like to cling to it for comfort as a Canadian myth. In 2010 he made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises, laid out terms for readmission, and invited them back if they met those conditions. And when he went to Edmonton to see its new arena for the first time, he was so impressed he wants to give the city an All Star Game and an NHL Draft session. That’s hardly the decisions of an anti-Canadian.

And the NHL loves the new Videotron that Quebec City built. Upon its opening, they awarded Quebec an exhibition game of the World Cup. Montreal, owned by the supposedly “anti-Quebec” Geoff Molson wants to keep playing preseason exhibition games there until Quebec City gets the Nordiques back. It’s obvious that the NHL loves Quebec City, its market and arena. They WANT the Nordiques to return. But they will not tolerate an owner like Pierre Karl Peladeau.

Videotron

Just to recount, Peladeau lost a bidding war to Geoff Molson to own the Montreal Canadiens and then publicly declared that Molson was unsuitable to own the Canadiens because he was an Anglophone Quebecer. Then he obstructed the business dealings of a colleague of Molson’s in some matter. He dabbles in pro-separatist provincial politics. Finally, he is simply untrustworthy; he is absurd. How can he think to get on a Board Of Governors when he publicly insults one of its members with a racist remark, a remark that probably not only offended Molson but many other Board members? Even a separatist cannot trust him because he invested in Canada by buying the Sun Media chain. The NHL wants somebody reliable, somebody they can believe in as an owner, so they are going to stay away from Peladeau.

MolPel

No, if you want an expansion/relocation NHL team, you follow the path of Bill Foley, Dave Thomson, and Mark Chipman who are the latest members of the NHL Board. The NHL is prepared to forgive and overlook a lot of sins if you have a good owner. Just for the record, Foley is the owner of the new Las Vegas Golden Knights, and Thomson and Chipman were the owners who acquired the Atlanta Thrashers and brought Winnipeg back into the NHL. With good owners, Gary Bettman and the NHL Board were even prepared to ignore the small size of the Winnipeg arena.

Ownership is a critical factor along with an arena and fan base. When Thomson and Chipman were lobbying to get Winnipeg its Jets back, they were often seen in the company of Bettman and members of the NHL Board. It helps to be the richest man in Canada like Thomson and be wealthy like Chipman, but both of them went out of their way to make themselves popular with the NHL Board. It was obvious that when Atlanta got into trouble, the Board and Bettman kept Chipman and Thomson in the back of their minds and that made it easy to transfer the team to them and return to Winnipeg after no investor appeared to keep the team in Atlanta. And Chipman is so popular, he (along with Molson) has been elected to the NHL Executive Committee.

Foley is also a popular choice. There were (and still are) doubts about whether Las Vegas has a suitable fan base, but nobody has doubted Bill Foley’s enthusiasm for the NHL. The NHL has been a flop in Phoenix but they are willing to take a chance on another desert team because of Foley. If he makes Vegas a success, look for him to be elected to the Executive Committee at a later date.

In contrast, Peladeau alienated the NHL Board. When the Videotron was being built, Bettman was often seen in the company of the provincial premier, the Montreal mayor, and other important local officials, but not Peladeau. And when any spokesman from the company was called to comment on how things were going, it was former Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney. For any new franchise, the NHL Board wants an owner whom they can work with, and trust and believe in.

For now, Quebec City rests in “deferred” suspension, until a suitable owner is found. It’s sad that the best city in North America without an NHL team, a city with a market the NHL believes in, with a new arena that the league (including Geoff Molson) loves, one that had the best rivalry in the NHL with Montreal, has to wait because no acceptable owner has appeared.

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 8: Return Of Winnipeg Was A Clear Marker Of The NHL’s American Status

Here’s a new hockey joke I’ve just invented:

Q. How do you get more Canadian teams in the NHL?

A. Start them in Atlanta.

Twice in NHL history, Atlanta had teams only to see them transferred to Canada because of bad attendance. Calgary and Winnipeg can both show gratitude to Atlanta after the NHL wore out its welcome there. Unfortunately for Canada, it will probably be a long time before the NHL returns to Atlanta. So Quebec Nordiques and Hamilton fans will have get their teams from other sources.

The transfer of the Thrashers to Winnipeg was the lowest blow in NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to improve the status of NHL hockey in the United States and get a better American television contract. First, it was the transfer of a team from a much bigger to a much smaller market. Second, it meant that his campaign to prove to American televison networks that NHL hockey was “an American game”, took a blow. (At a recent summit of NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL commissioners, Bettman commented that more young Americans were taking up hockey.) Third, it meant that a team was being transferred from a market that counts in American television ratings to a Canadian city where viewers cannot be included. And fourth, it raised questions about the wisdom of placing new NHL franchises in American markets that were unfamiliar with hockey.

And for Bettman to proclaim that the Winnipeg arena, the smallest one in the NHL and built for Winnipeg’s AHL team, the Manitoba Moose was suitable for the NHL was very surprising. But he had no choice. No investor wanted the Thrashers, at least one that would keep them playing in Atlanta. And bringing back the Winnipeg Jets got rid of  one third of his Canadian critics. The pressure group, the “Manitoba Mythbusters” can now say, “Mission accomplished”.

 

winnipeg

But the fact that no American investor wanted the Thrashers and keep them in an American city was a clear sign of the NHL’s low status in the United States. There were no American rival offers to match Winnipeg. Even in potential good American markets like Seattle, Milwaukee, and Portland there was no interest. And in hindsight, when NHL expansion was eventually announced with a $500 million expansion fee, and $10 million “consideration fee”, American investors, including Bill Foley, the new owner of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, passed on a bargain.

On the other hand, Winnipeg had positive assets in its new owners, Dave Thomson and Mark Chipman. Thomson is the richest man in Canada so adding him to the NHL Board was almost a no-brainer. And Mark Chipman has been so popular, he was recently elected to the NHL Executive Committee. Having popular potential owners certainly made the transfer of the Thrashers to Winnipeg easier. Bettman himself and probably the majority of the NHL Board wants Winnipeg, Quebec and Hartford back in the league. He made a tour of all three cities back in 2010 and offered them terms for readmission to the NHL if they met certain conditions. That door still remains open for Quebec and Hartford.

But it’s doubtful that Bettman and the NHL Board wanted Winnipeg back in the league through relocation. The league lost $500 million in a potential expansion fee. And seeing investor indifference in the United States highlighted, reminded everyone, especially American televison networks, about the NHL’s low status in the United States. Winnipeg was used to bail out the NHL in an embarrassing situation. Imagine what would have happened if no one wanted the Thrashers. The league would have been forced to fold the team or own and operate them like they did in Phoenix.

The Atlanta debacle could be matched in Phoenix. The NHL was forced to own and operate the Coyotes for years while they searched for a new owner. They rejected a transfer of the Coyotes to maverick potential owner, Jim Balsille and another Canadian city, Hamilton. But now there is an arena crisis in Phoenix looming and the NHL and Glendale have publicly declared they are finished with one another when either the current lease expires or the Coyotes find a new home, either in the Phoenix area or in another city.

Now knowing that the NHL wants a $500 million expansion fee, will American investors, particularly owners of or builders of new arenas invite the Coyotes to their cities? Acquiring an NHL team through relocation instead of expansion seems to be a big “bargain”. But if no American investor wants the Coyotes, even in another better American market, at the cut-rate price of relocation, it will only serve to remind everyone, just like the Atlanta Thrashers did, that NHL hockey, compared with the NFL, the NBA and MLB, is still not “America’s game”.

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 7: The American Attitude To International Sports

The Americans finally won the gold medal in the World Baseball Classic this year, in fact their first medal ever. Will that change things?

It seems funny to start off an article about hockey by talking about baseball but the World Baseball Classic is an all too accurate symbol about the United States attitude to international hockey, indeed to almost all international sports. It’s either win or have nothing to do with it and belittle it.

American bombast in sports starts the moment the sport is created. The winner of the “World” Series is not the baseball champion of the United States but the “world” champion. So is the champion of the NFL and NBA. And it is the same in the NHL, though with the coming of the Europeans in the 1970s, the term “Stanley Cup Champion” is now more frequently used. In fact NHL hockey is probably the closest “big 4″ sport to being a true world championship because seven of the NHL franchises are based in Canada and the main trophy and several others are Canadian. At least that is better than the one international team in the NBA and MLB and none in the NFL.

Which brings up the subject of the World Baseball Classic. It was started in an attempt to promote the growth of baseball internationally, but it has been decidedly hampered by the bad American attitude toward it. Up to this year, the Americans had never won anything and the excuses made during previous tournaments were that the tournament was a “minor” affair that did not compare with MLB and was not worthy of the United States sending its best players to participate. That was the unofficial excuse Americans clung to for comfort in the face of obvious ignominious failure; America had not bothered to send its best players to a “minor” tournament.

In 2009, American team member Kevin Youkilis publicly berated the American fans for not showing more support for their team. His outburst provoked reactions of violent hatred. America was in the grip of the Mortgage Meltdown and American fans, especially those who were suffering the effects of the Meltdown turned on Youkilis as a representative of a fantasy world of prima donna sports figures that had no contact with the grim reality of the “real world”. Yet their legitimate outbursts still reflected the contempt Americans had for a championship that they did not regard as “big league”.

In fact the results of the World Baseball Classic could be used to question whether MLB itself contained the best baseball players in the world and whether Americans themselves were paying top dollar for a product which, it could now be legitimately argued was inferior to what was being played internationally. No matter. Americans generally ignored the results of the tournament, belittled it, and continued to believe that MLB was the best baseball in the world.

Now contrast that with what happened to Canada in 1972. Before the Canada-USSR tournament, Canada had much the same attitude to international hockey as Americans had to the World Baseball Classic. A group of NHL “goons” it was even speculated, would be good enough to sweep every game against the Soviets.

But the near defeat of Canada’s best players by the USSR and the high standard of play in every game changed everything. Gone forever was the thought that Canada had an overwhelming monopoly of the best players in the world. It was recognized that at least among the “big 7″ hockey countries, Canada had only a narrow margin of superiority. Canada now had things to learn from international competition, particularly the importance of conditioning, that everyone recognized that the USSR had a distinct advantage in the tournament. Canadians became willing to eat a lot of humble pie in order to improve their own game of hockey.

The Canadian attitude toward international tournaments changed too. Now winning the Olympics, the World Championship, the World Junior Championship, and the World Women’s Championship were considered to be great achievements to be valued, not something to be belittled and disparaged. But perhaps the greatest change was that international competition was now considered something special, something higher than even the NHL. The obvious superior play between the USSR and Canada was recognized immediately and Canadians wanted more of it. The Canada-USSR match led directly to the start of the Canada/World Cup and the integration of Europeans into the NHL. The close competition created a new attitude of respect.

But the American attitude to international sports including hockey still has not changed much. They still claim their domestic championships are world championships. I’ve written several articles on this blog and others outlining the NFL’s hatred for foreigners as well their contempt for their own fans by stripping cities of their franchises, often on the mere whim of a prima donna owner. This year NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman showed the American attitude to international hockey clearly by pulling the NHL out of the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea.

And to soothe their own troubled consciences, Americans haul out memories of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice”, one of the few triumphs in hockey the United States has enjoyed. They create myths like the “Bsd News Bears” in baseball and the “Mighty Ducks” in hockey (Who have yet to play a Canadian team. Disney is afraid of losing the Canadian market. Canada always gets defeated off camera by some villainous European team.).

Soccer for the most part has learned to live without the United States and its money. The NHL is in a kind of half way position. What respect there is for international hockey has mostly come from changes in attitude from Canada. But for the most part, the American attitude to international sports hurts the sports Americans claim they want to develop around the world.

This year, South Korea improved its hockey team so that it got promoted to the top level of next year’s World Championships. If they do well, it will be a breakthrough in the development of international hockey. But the NHL has pulled itself out of Pyeongchang, hurting both international hockey and the entry of the NHL into a potential new important market. But no matter, Americans can watch reruns of the Ducks, Bears, and the Miracle On Ice. Myths in international sports are more important to Americans than improving their own game and becoming members of the international sports community.

 

 

 

New Leagues Are The Solution For Junior Hockey Expansion

How to make hockey grow in North America, particularly in the United States? For the most part, Canada has worked out an excellent solution, the CHL which binds together the three main branches of junior hockey in Canada, the WHL, the OHL, and QMJHL and provides a national championship, the Memorial Cup each year. The only awkward part is Northern Ontario which has cities like Thunder Bay and Timmins which might be able to successfully support junior teams but are too far away to compete feasibly with other areas of Canada. Unless airfare is significantly reduced or a dramatic new way of traveling is invented, these isolated areas will have to be ignored for some time in the future.

Given the precarious state of owning and operating junior teams in North America, travel is a serious issue. For that reason there is no inter-league play except for the Memorial Cup tournament itself. It’s a fanciful concept but until improvements in travel are invented, it will have to remain an unrealized dream.

Growth of hockey starts with growth in the levels of play before a player reaches the NHL level. Of the three branches in junior Canadian hockey, the OHL has the best chance to expand. There are still lots of smaller Canadian towns in southern Ontario to plant new teams and northern New York State, Michigan, and Ohio offer lots more possibilities for expansion.

The QMJHL offers good chances for expansion but the league has too many weak sister franchises in terms of attendance and small arenas to do much. Right now the league wants to strengthen its existing franchises instead of expanding.

That leaves the WHL which is the biggest league in the CHL with 22 teams including an American branch. But here the problem of travel is most manifest. Areas of growth like Montana, Idaho, and southern Oregon are too far away from the existing WHL franchises to be feasible. So the best solution is to form new American junior leagues and affiliate them and existing American ones with the CHL.

Why join American junior leagues to Canada? Simply put, there is a drop in quality of play between Canadian and American junior hockey. Most of the best American players come from the CHL or from American university hockey. Alongside expanding the markets for junior hockey in the United States, raising the standard of play has to be a priority.

Forget the nationalism argument. The United States and Europe are quite content to send many of their top junior prospects into the CHL for development. In fact the Europeans want in so badly that the CHL has put a limit on how many their teams can have. Doing well in the CHL is almost a certain ticket to becoming a high draft choice in the NHL draft, no matter if the player comes from Canada, Europe, or the United States.

Where to start? There is only one Tier 1 junior level league in the United States, in the United States Hockey League, with most of the teams located in the northern, central United States. Becoming a branch under the CHL umbrella would raise the standard of play in the league and open opportunities for more American, Canadian, and European boys. Organizing a new league in the Montana-Idaho area and maybe other states within reasonable traveling distance would be a good idea. And sorting out and organizing another American hotbed of hockey, New England would help.

That would make the Memorial Cup a six team tournament (unless the CHL had any other ideas to make the tournament 8 teams; a host city and the best wild card team of the 6 branches of the league). As for the nationalist argument of American teams and leagues being under the Canadian umbrella: Well the Memorial Cup is probably the most prestigious trophy for junior hockey in the world. The existing American franchises in the CHL do not mind competing for it and more American leagues and franchises would be competing for it at a higher standard of play.

Reorganizing junior hockey, particularly in the United States is essential for growth. At a recent summit of the “big 4″ North American major league commissioners, Gary Bettman commented on the growth of hockey at the junior level of the United States. But the present growth is nothing compared to what could be accomplished if the existing leagues were better organized, new leagues founded, and the standard of play significantly raised.

 

Gretzky Trade Should Not Be Celebrated

Today is August 9 and a few writers (probably Americans) at NHL.com have chosen to write articles about an event that they believe somehow deserves a place of honor in American NHL sports history, the trade of Wayne Gretzky by the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Somehow the belief exists that this trade resulted in a massive upsurge of interest in the NHL across the United States, particularly in California. There are those who to this day swear that this trade was an important preliminary step to the eventual creation of the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks. America had finally secured (stole according to Edmonton fans) Canada’s greatest player. Gretzky was being traded, “Americanized”, “for the good of the game”.

They were wrong. The trade would prove to be the first and probably the most important step in the decline of the Gretzky legend. They damaged an intangible. There are some things that cannot be bought and the Gretzky legend would never be the same. There are still regretful articles written about how many Stanley Cups the Oilers would have won if Gretzky had not been traded. In retrospect, the whole thing is a shameful act of betrayal. Canadian bad faith and lack of capital met American greed and ignorance with disastrous results. It was not the first and would not be the last time this author at least, would see such a combination bring catastrophic consequences, not just confined to hockey.

Gretzky himself did not want to be traded. He wanted to be an Oiler forever. This is where he had blossomed, a real hockey environment. The whole team had been built around him and he had already won four Stanley Cups. But Oiler owner Peter Pocklington was bribed by Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall (who would later go to prison) with $15 million, some players, and three number one draft choices. The official argument for the trade, it would be announced, was that somehow overnight Gretzky had become a “wasting asset”, that he had passed the peak of his abilities at the age of 27, and that Pocklington was getting what he could for him while he still could.

Ironically that would prove to be true, but only because Gretzky was being traded from a championship environment to a horrible one. To be called washed up at 27 when the peak years in a hockey career are usually from 23 to 30 is lying nonsense. But that didn’t stop the trade and the first major blow against the Gretzky legend had already been struck: Unknown to everyone, Gretzky had hoisted the Stanley Cup for the last time. Most of the core of the Oiler team would win the Stanley Cup for a fifth and last time and some of the others would win more Stanley Cups after they were traded elsewhere. But Gretzky, the greatest Oiler in history would only win four Stanley Cups, all with Edmonton.

The choice of Los Angeles as the trading partner was based on the money offered and because McNall was said to be almost the only owner who could afford to pay Gretzky’s contract and bribe Pocklington with enough money to let Gretzky go, and it was a city that supposedly would further Gretzky’s new wife, Janet’s career. In fact Janet would be unfairly blamed as desiring to get out of “small town” Edmonton; at least temporarily until the truth emerged, she became the NHL’s version of Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman.

In acquiring Gretzky, McNall was recognizing the realities of the Los Angeles market. Los Angeles is not a sports city. It is a market where the movie star is the ruler. People are more interested in who gets starring roles, who wins the Oscar, who gets to direct what picture, and which stars are having extra marital affairs with other stars. A few years later, Los Angeles would lose both its NFL teams, the Rams and Raiders and the public merely yawned, put its feet up, and would be content to be without NFL football for 20 years, the greatest humiliation in NFL history.

In Los Angeles, sports are sold by having star players. The sports star can then be passed off as a kind movie star in another field. The Kings already tried to win with Marcel Dionne and now with the acquisition of Gretzky, they were sure they would be over the top. Unfortunately the Kings were so bad, particularly at the ownership and management level, they did know what to do with their prize acquisition. The Kings had long been one of the jokes of the NHL. All through the Dionne years, the best they could do was win one playoff round a year. The best that Gretzky would do in Los Angeles was one random appearance in the Stanley Cup Final where the Kings lost to the Montreal Canadiens.

Management tried various combinations. They even traded with Edmonton to get Gretzky’s old winger, Jari Kurri, in a desperate attempt to make a winner out of the team. Gretzky’s wallet and financial status did well of course, but being in a city where he was just another star, instead of being the main attraction in a true hockey environment was not the same. He continued to pile up a lot of impressive individual scoring statistics and make a lot of money, but the Gretzky legend suffered. At the end of his contract he would be traded to St. Louis and then move on to the New York Rangers. There would be no more Stanley Cups for the Great One.

All it proves is that it is the great team, not the great player that wins Stanley Cups. It would be two decades later, when the Kings had much better ownership and management that they would finally build a team, with much less glamorous players than Gretzky and Dionne that would win two Stanley Cups. The Gretzky and Dionne years in Los Angeles were wasted ones.

The least that the Oilers could have done was to trade Gretzky to a real hockey environment with competent ownership and management that knew what they were doing. Montreal, arch-rival Calgary, or even French speaking Quebec City were the best Canadian hockey teams at the time. Or if it must be an American city, Philadelphia, the New York Islanders, Boston, and Detroit would have been better choices. As to the arguments that Gretzky improved California hockey and was responsible for the birth of two more California teams, that is stretching things. The trade undoubtably helped stir interest in hockey in California, but the NHL had always wanted to return to the Bay area after the disaster of the California Golden Seals, and the creation of the Anaheim Ducks might have more to do with the Mighty Ducks of the movies and Walt Disney, than Wayne Gretzky.

But the real damage was to the intangible, the Gretzky legend and hockey legends in general, things that cannot be bought. For a start it was a betrayal of Gretzky himself, the Oiler organization by its owner, and the city of Edmonton and its fans. Can you imagine Jim Brown in any other uniform but the Cleveland Browns? Or Babe Ruth in anything other than a Yankee uniform? (Ruth would play one half of a disastrous final season with the National League Boston Braves and then be forced to retire. There would be betrayals in that episode too.) At least when the San Francisco 49ers let an aging Joe Montana go to Kansas City, they had Steve Young waiting in the wings.

The Montreal Canadiens at least had a sense of the importance of legends. They kept Maurice Richard in his declining last years. They could not bear to think of him in another uniform even though Richard had said publicly he would not object to playing with another team. And Richard kept winning Stanley Cups until he retired, being part of Montreal’s greatest dynasty from 1956 to 1960. His immortality is at least undiminished.

But the Gretzky trade (which made California hockey?) is actually the start of his decline. There is little after it that really adds to his legend. It was a shameful betrayal, not something to be celebrated. Gretzky would go into the Hall of Fame as an Oiler. That says it all.

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 6: No Equivalent Of The CHL

In the World Junior Championships, Canada dominates the United States. The score is Canada 16, United States 4 in gold medals and Canada 30, United States 10 in total medals. Overall the United States sits 4th in both gold medals and total medals.

Given the huge population advantage the United States has, one might have expected a reversal of medals, but Canada’s lead proves that quality wins over quantity. Why is this possible? Most likely it is because of Canada’s secret weapon, the CHL.

No other country has a junior hockey institution like the CHL. It consists of three branches; a western league which includes a United States division, an Ontario league which has three American franchises, and a Quebec-Maritime league. At the end of the CHL season, the champions of each branch compete for the Memorial Cup along with a host city. The Memorial Cup tournament host team rotates each year through the three leagues.

The United States has no equivalent of the CHL. American players who become NHL players and play for the United States internationally usually come from the CHL or from hockey played at the American university level. Since the advent of Europeans in the 1970s, European boys also want to play in the CHL, so much so that the league has had to set a limit on how many Europeans can play on each team.

It is easy to see why so many Americans and Europeans want to play in the CHL. The quality of play at the junior level is high. The teams play a tough, rugged style that the NHL draws on. Americans and Europeans who join the CHL get a chance to compete directly against Canada’s top young talent. Not only do they get trained well, but if they distinguish themselves in the CHL, it is almost a certain ticket to becoming a high draft choice in the NHL draft.

For the record, if a young American with hockey talent gets drafted by a CHL team, he’ll move to that town or city where there are volunteer families who act as sponsors, a type of “foster parents” where he will live and become a part of that family. He will attend a Canadian or American high school to continue his education. And in the case of some Europeans, they will get a chance to learn to speak English or French. So Americans and Europeans can become “Canadianized” in more than just hockey.

And it seems that the United States and Europe are quite content to let Canada train most of their top stars. If the CHL ever expands (there approximately 60 teams at present) there would be no problem finding a talent pool in Canada, the United States and Europe to stock several new teams.

But this is one of the main reasons that hockey remains number 4 in status in the United States. The United States (and Europe) simply do not put in the resources necessary at the junior level and younger to raise the quality of play and the game’s stature. In Canada, hockey is number one. It is not a fluke that Canada dominates international play at most levels. They have better training, better coaches, and they put more resources into hockey.

If the game of hockey is going to rise in status in the United States, more has to be done at the junior levels or younger to make it happen. Perhaps an American equivalent of the CHL has to be created. In Canada, children start playing hockey when they start entering public school. It gets into the blood at an early age. That has to happen in the United States more often, for hockey to rise status and be considered one of “America’s games”.