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.
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.
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.