Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 5: No American Golden Boy In NHL History

America loves heroes, particularly in the military or in sports. But in NHL history, the best player of his generation is always Canadian. Since the 1940s, the best player who is always head and shoulders above everyone else comes from Canada, virtually an unbroken golden chain. Its members, in order, include Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Sidney Crosby. Connor McDavid is currently speculated as Crosby’s successor. All have won at least one Stanley Cup.

There have been no Americans or Europeans who have been the best players of their generation. Alexander Ovechkin was billed as Crosby’s rival when he entered the league at approximately the same time but he has no team championships in the NHL or internationally like Crosby has. Probably the non-Canadian player who has come closest to being acclaimed the best player of his generation is Jaromir Jagr, Lemieux’s sidekick in Pittsburgh, still currently playing and who is now the number two scorer in NHL history behind only Gretzky.

For the Americans, the best they could do is Brett Hull, Bobby’s son who was born in Canada but who became an American citizen and often played for the United States in international tournaments. Another top Canadian, Brian Trottier became an American citizen and played for the United States internationally. And there have been distinguished native born Americans like Joe Mullen, Mike Modano, and Jeremy Roenick, etc. But never the number one NHL player.

So the best Americans can do is have Canada’s top player as a member of an American NHL franchise and win Stanley Cups for them. Currently Pittsburgh is the beneficiary with Crosby winning 3 Stanley Cups and having a good chance to win many more before he retires and McDavid takes over.

But for the United States, it is still not the same as having a native son as the best player. There is no legendary American hockey player like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan to inspire young American minds. And because the NHL has never had such an American player, its status in the United States suffers when it is compared to other “traditional” American sports. Hockey in American eyes remains a Canadian game and the NHL ranks number 4 behind the NFL, MLB, and the NBA.

Currently the best American hope for the future appears to be Auston Matthews now playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Jack Eichel playing just down the road in Buffalo. And Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets may be the best future European. But all three will have a tough time supplanting McDavid who recently signed an 8-year $100 million contract with Edmonton. It will be quite a future rivalry among them, plus any other new top kids who enter the league in the future.

Even if they don’t topple McDavid off his projected throne, all three have a chance to write a distinguished legendary career of their own. If Matthews should lead the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs back to the Stanley Cup after 50 years of bad ownership and management and wandering in the wilderness, he’ll be an all time legendary hero in that city, no matter where he comes from. And if Eichel and Laine deliver Buffalo and Winnipeg their first Stanley Cup, they’ll become all time heroes in their cities too.

But in terms of becoming the ultimate hockey idol, it is still the dream of a Canadian boy. We are still waiting for the American and European Gretzky, Orr, Richard, etc., to appear.

 

There Is No “Plan B” For The Quebec Nordiques

Last month there was an article published in The Hockey News and on their website recounting Quebec City’s misery at seeing Las Vegas start its new team while their city still has its nose to the NHL glass looking in. The article argues that Quebec City is prepared to be patient and wait until the day that the NHL relents and opens its doors to them.

The article goes on to lament the tragedy of unfamiliar Las Vegas getting a team while hockey mad Quebec suffers. It also makes mention of the “official” NHL excuse, the low Canadian dollar. It exalts the virtues of the city, lists all its advantages including its increased population of over 800,000, its beautiful arena, the Videotron, and the “stable ownership that won’t flinch”.

That potential ownership is Quebecor, a media giant owned and operated by Pierre Karl Peladeau. Quebecor also happens to own The Hockey News. For that reason the article declines to mention the REAL reason Quebec City does not have a team: The owner is unsuitable to the NHL.

In 2010, when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made his tour of Quebec and the other two cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s, he listed three conditions of readmission to the league; fan base, arena, and ownership. Quebec City has always had a great fan base and the NHL loves the Videotron which they have rewarded with a World Cup exhibition game and Montreal Canadiens preseason exhibition games each year.

That leaves the ownership factor as the reason for Quebec City being out of the league. Initially when Quebec was turned down by the NHL, I believed the league’s “official” excuses; the low Canadian dollar and conference imbalance. But after doing more research sometime later for another article on the Quebec City situation, I came across an article in Maclean’s Magazine explaining Pierre Karl Peladeau’s relationship with the NHL. I immediately discarded the fictitious reasons the NHL gives and what I had believed.

The article amply explained the real reason Quebec City’s bid was officially “deferred”. Peladeau has made many enemies on the NHL Board, particularly Montreal Canadiens owner, Geoff Molson, to whom he lost the Montreal Canadiens to in a bidding war. Briefly in one sentence, the NHL is rejecting Peladeau because of his public, inappropriate racial remarks about Molson, his pro-separatist provincial politics, his obstructionist business tactics, and his general untrustworthiness. Now ask yourself, if someone came to you with a cheque for half a billion dollars would you put it on hold and “defer” it?

You won’t unless you have a valid reason for doing so. The NHL will not tolerate a public racist on the Board. The damage he or she could do far outweighs whatever money he or she is offering. It was an easy decision for the NHL to reject Peladeau and invent excuses like low Canadian dollar and unbalanced conferences to cover things up. He is unacceptable to the NHL as the owner for both Montreal and Quebec City.

So one of his subsidiaries, The Hockey News publishes a recent article extolling the virtues of a Quebec NHL team, the suffering and patience of the fans as they accept some fictitious “plan B” by the NHL and makes no mention of Peladeau’s public racist insults about Molson and the other reasons why the NHL rejected him. It’s a clever way of pinning the blame for the cruel treatment of Quebec on the United States and “English Canada”. But then, isn’t that what the separatists always do?

And while I am writing an article debunking myths, here’s another one that should be refuted. When Quebec was turned down, some websites reported that Quebec was being rejected in favor of Las Vegas, implying that the two cities were competing against each other. That’s rubbish. The two cities were never competing against each other. The NHL wanted both expansion fees, making the profit an even billion. Las Vegas never got its new team at the expense of Quebec.

In fact the last NHL expansion was a failure. Before the $500 million entry fee was revealed, it was being reported in the media and on many websites that there were four “done deals” already sewn up for the NHL; second Toronto and Seattle as well as Quebec and Las Vegas. To only get one quarter of the potential new franchises was a major slap in the face to the NHL.  They obviously wanted Quebec AND more franchises.

These fictitious arguments and lamentations only confuse things, but Bettman was clear. Quebec and Hartford (and every future NHL expansion team) will get back into the NHL if they have a great fan base, a proper NHL arena, and an acceptable owner. And only when they meet ALL these conditions will they be accepted. There is no “plan B”. Until they fully comply, forget it.

 

If NHL Expansion Was Based On Rivalries…

This a fun article which little corresponds to reality. Expansion in any league is a hot topic and as this is a hockey blog I’ll limit this to the NHL. Though I have written articles on this blog in the past about which countries should have their standard of play raised to improve international hockey. And even expanding Canada’s junior CHL leagues would be fun.

For this article I’m going to throw logic out the window. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s and offered them reasonable terms for readmission (No mention then of a $500 million expansion fee and $10 million “consideration fee”). These included a great fan base, a suitable owner, and a proper NHL fee. For this fun, imaginary article I am going to pretend that all the expansion choices meet all three of his demands. I am also going to make the assumption that the NHL will realign into an NFL structure of 2 Conferences with 4 Divisions each and each will have 4 teams to start with. This makes it easier to expand to 5 teams per division (40) and even 6 teams to a division (48).

I am also going to put some limits on this expansion. First, some teams already have their best ever rival in the NHL. There are the New York teams; Calgary and Edmonton; Tampa Bay and Florida; the two Los Angeles teams and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. There will be no better rivals added to them, though some of the new teams might develop a rivalry with them. Second, some teams will not be given a new rival. They may not be near anybody who is currently big enough yet. And third, teams will be only limited to one new rival, so Montreal will not get both second Montreal and Quebec, San Jose will not get both San Francisco and Portland, etc.

The latest team that was actually added to the NHL was Las Vegas, which in theory could be the best-ever rival of Phoenix, two desert teams. The question is will there be an Arizona team in the future? This potential rivalry could be killed at birth. I am making the assumption that Arizona will still be around. But here are some of the best NHL rivalries that have yet to be realized. There is no special order in this list though what I consider to be the best unrealized rivalries are at the top.

1. Montreal Canadiens Vs. Quebec

This was the best rivalry in the NHL before it came to an untimely end, so it was an easy choice to list it first. The NHL could also bring back the old Montreal Maroons who folded in the Great Depression, but the growth of Quebec City and its intense rivalry with Montreal when it joined the NHL after being a WHA team gives Quebec priority. All Canadians and probably all the NHL Board want Quebec back, now that it has built the Videotron. Bettman has to resolve the Quebec ownership problem as soon as possible to get this feud going again.

2. Boston Bruins Vs. Hartford

This rivalry never really got off the ground because Hartford seldom had a good team because of its ownership and arena problems. But Hartford-Boston for the championship of New England is a natural. Hartford plans to update the XL Center and if they can find a suitable owner, a new Hartford team should no longer be a weak sister. This rivalry has yet to see its better days.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs Vs. Hamilton

Whenever Toronto plays Hamilton in the CFL, it is said that there is usually at least one fist fight in the stands. Can you imagine what would happen if Toronto and Hamilton became NHL rivals as well? This potential great rivalry is being held up because Toronto and Buffalo will not share the rich southern Ontario market. But one of the next 9 NHL expansion teams HAS to be a new southern Ontario team. Bettman should be reigning in the NHL Board to set a suitable compensation package for Hamilton and get one of the best rivalries in Canada, one to rival Montreal-Quebec and Calgary-Edmonton going.

4. Vancouver Canucks Vs. Seattle

This has the potential to be the best cross border rivalry in the NHL. Buffalo-Toronto has never really taken off all these years but that may change with Americans Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel now leading their teams. Vancouver has never really had a top rival all to itself. It has rivalries with Calgary and Edmonton, but still plays second fiddle to the championship of Alberta. In baseball and football, Seattle has been mostly by itself. So it could be a promising experiment to give them each other for the championship of the northwest coast. The NHL wants Seattle in, in fact they were the first American team to win the Stanley Cup. Right now Seattle is stuck at the arena issue but if it is resolved, they would become the leading western city to get an expansion franchise.

5. Nashville Predators Vs. Memphis

An interesting experiment, the battle between eastern and western Tennessee for the championship of the state. The Predators, after being a precarious NHL franchise may finally have turned the corner as a credible NHL market, with their recent visit to the Stanley Cup Final. Giving them a state rival might consolidate things. It’s worth taking a chance on.

6. Chicago Blackhawks Vs. Second Chicago

Is Chicago big enough for two teams? MLB seems to think so. They now play each other every year since Inter-league play was introduced. Right now Chicago’s main rival was traditionally Detroit, but the Redwings moved to the Eastern Conference and seldom play the Blackhawks any more. So giving Chicago an inner city rival might work.

7. St. Louis Blues Vs. Kansas City

The battle of Missouri seldom happens. In football, St Louis was placed in the NFC and Kansas City in the AFC. Now St. Louis has lost its team and it may be a long time before it comes back. In baseball, the cities finally play each other with introduction of inter-league play. There was also a memorable World Series in 1985. But Kansas City-St. Louis still has to take off in any sport and hockey has the chance to ignite this sleepy feud.

8. Dallas Stars Vs. Houston

In baseball, Houston was having attendance problems so they switched a traditional National League team to the American League just so Houston could play the Texas Rangers more frequently. In football, the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys only play each other once every four years. In basketball, Dallas has a significant rivalry with both Houston and San Antonio. The NHL definitely wants Houston, the largest American city without a hockey team in the league. The Dallas Stars have no real rivalry with anyone so bringing Houston into the NHL would fill a big hole.

9. San Jose Sharks Vs. San Francisco

Right now San Francisco is building a new arena but like the unsuitable Barclay’s Center, it may be only good as the new home for the Golden State Warriors of the NBA. There is no talk of getting an NHL team for San Francisco, but MLB and the NFL (until the treacherous move of the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas) believed that the Bay area could support two teams. But these cities seldom play each other though there was a World Series between San Francisco and Oakland. Regular games between San Jose and San Francisco could lead to a promising NHL rivalry.

10. Washington Capitals Vs. Baltimore

Washington seldom plays Baltimore in both MLB and the NFL so a real rivalry between these close American cities has yet to take off. Hockey has the opportunity. Actually another possible experiment for Washington would be to give Norfolk Virginia a team. But Baltimore has always been a great sports city though it has never tried NHL hockey. The NHL could be the beneficiary of a seldom-tired rivalry.

11. Winnipeg Jets Vs. Saskatoon

In the CFL, Saskatchewan was always Winnipeg’s best rival despite the Blue Bombers having to be moved back and forth between the Eastern and Western Conferences as occasion merited. Saskatoon is one of Canada’s fastest growing smaller cities so a Saskatchewan regional team, within 20 years might be a feasible possibility in the long term.

12. Minnesota Wild Vs. Milwaukee

In the NFL, Minnesota-Green Bay is one of the league’s best rivalries. Right now, Minnesota’s best rival might be Chicago but Chicago’s best rival was always Detroit until they switched conferences. Minnesota-Milwaukee has the same promise as Minnesota-Green Bay. It’s an experiment worth trying.

13. Raleigh Hurricanes Vs. Charlotte

In hockey and football, they call the team Carolina. Only basketball goes by the city name of Charlotte. The NHL’s team is located in Raleigh, not North Carolina’s largest city, and has been having attendance problems, probably because they have not iced a competitive team for a long time. Giving them a state rival would be an interesting experiment, one that might save the franchise.

14. Buffalo Sabres Vs. Rochester

This will never happen, at least for a very long time. Buffalo versus Rochester for the championship of upper New York State might become a great rivalry. It only occurs in lacrosse. But Buffalo will not share northern New York State with Rochester any more than it wants to share the southern Ontario market with Hamilton. Maybe in the very distant future when the population of Buffalo is 5 million and the population of Rochester is 3 million, it could happen for the NHL.

15. Columbus Blue Jackets Vs. Cleveland

For this rivalry to occur, Columbus has to finally become a credible NHL city, the NHL has to finally forget the horrible memories of the Cleveland Barons, and the city of Cleveland itself finally has to be willing to support a team at the top level of hockey, not just the Lake Erie Monsters. Nobody is going to take a chance in the Death Valley of hockey, Ohio-Indiana. For that reason, nobody is going to take a chance on either Cincinnati or Indianapolis as a rival for Columbus too.

There are 15 potential great rivalries waiting to happen in the NHL. That’s 15 more teams giving the NHL 46 teams, two less than the symmetrical 48 for an even 8, 6- team Division league. So to round out the NHL I’m going to nominate Portland and second Montreal…

 

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.

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 3: Low Status Played A Key Role In NHL Expansion/Relocation

When Gary Bettman became NHL Commissioner in 1993, one of his priorities that he was probably specifically charged with by the NHL Board was to raise the status of NHL hockey in the United States. And in tangible terms, this meant getting a much more lucrative contract from American televison, one that at least approached that of football, baseball, and basketball.

Bettman initiated a controversial policy. He would expand the NHL into unfamiliar markets in the United States where the game in many cases had to be taught to the new patrons. By expanding the NHL all over the United States, he hoped that the NHL would at least give an illusion that it was one of “America’s games”, a “big 4″ professional sport that merited an American television contract on par with the NFL, MLB, and the NBA. In addition, he sanctioned the move of 4 existing franchises from traditional hockey loving markets to new territory. These shifts were Minnesota to Dallas; Quebec to Denver; Hartford to Raleigh; and Winnipeg to Phoenix. Of the four shifts, only the move of Quebec to Denver could be said to be a move from one hockey loving market to one with any familiarity with hockey.

There have been 7 expansion teams during Bettman’s tenure; Florida, Anaheim, Nashville, Minnesota, Atlanta, Columbus, and now Las Vegas. All except Minnesota and possibly Anaheim have been non-traditional hockey markets. In the end Bettman did get a better contract from American television, but not one that compares favorably with those given to the other three leagues. And there would be low moments like the OLN/Versus episode.

Expansion to unfamiliar markets came at a price. In some years, it was reported that as many as 10 American teams were losing money. The lowest moment so far was the shifting of Atlanta for the second time to a Canadian city, this time Winnipeg. Right now Arizona is another potential major embarrassment.

There was a bitter reaction elsewhere. American cities in the northwestern United States, specifically Portland, Milwaukee, and Seattle – three sure money makers – were ignored. The shift of Winnipeg and Quebec and the NHL’s refusal to put a second team in southern Ontario, specifically Hamilton, accounts for much of Bettman’s unpopularity in Canada, even though he was probably right that the smaller Canadian cities needed bigger and better arenas with much more solid ownership.

Bettman himself is probably NOT anti-Canadian, though most Canadians believe it. He opened the door for Winnipeg and Quebec to return in 2010 and expressed regret at the loss of the franchises. And the limited number of Canadian teams probably has more to do with the existing Canadian franchise owners unwillingness to share their markets and Canadian television revenue than any “anti-Canadian” policy initiated by Bettman and the American owners of the NHL. But the “low status” problem in the United States has dictated much of his policies about where new NHL expansion teams should be located.

Would it have been better to put new teams in Milwaukee, Portland, and Seattle, cities that Canadians can hardly object to that have a love of hockey, instead of many of the unknown American markets? Certainly NHL television and attendance records might have been better, leading to a better American television contract. Some of the new American franchises have worked; Dallas, Anaheim, and Denver. Hopefully Nashville, after coming close to being shifted to Hamilton by Jim Balsille has turned the corner.

But hockey remains number 4. The NHL has made progress and revenues are up during Bettman’s time as Commissioner, but he has not solved the status problem. Right now Arizona, Carolina, and the arena of the New York Islanders are major problems. Columbus and Florida are precarious franchises. Will Las Vegas work or become another Phoenix? Can it really be said that hockey is “America’s game”?

 

Next Year The Penguins Challenge The Steelers

Something unthinkable in 1967, something laughable in 1979 could occur next year in Pittsburgh professional sports history. The Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL have the opportunity to move into a tie to become the city’s most successful professional sports franchise. The Penguins have already tied MLB’s Pirates who have been around since 1882 with 5 professional championships. Next year they can tie the Steelers with 6.

That would seem unthinkable 50 years ago when the Penguins were born, one of six new teams in the first NHL expansion that doubled the size of the league. And Pittsburgh was the worst of the bunch. During the first few years the Penguins were the worst team in the league and seldom sold out their small arena. People wondered if NHL hockey would survive.

The Penguins then moved from bad to respectable mediocrity. They made the playoffs but were never a true Stanley Cup contender. Most of the years were forgettable and in 1983, Pittsburgh sank to the bottom again.

Then the Penguins got two back-to-back breaks. In professional hockey since the 1940s, Canada has always produced one hockey player who stands above all others both in the NHL and internationally, a chain that has always resulted in at least one Stanley Cup championship. Starting with Maurice Richard, this golden chain includes Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur and Wayne Gretzky.

In 1983, with Gretzky just starting to reach his NHL prime, fans wondered who his successor would be and the Penguins would draft him in 1984, Mario Lemieux. And then years later they would draft Lemieux’s successor, Sidney Crosby. (Crosby’s reputed successor is Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers.) Since 1990, the result has been 5 Stanley Cups.

Now the Penguins who never compared with the Pirates and Steelers before are poised to become Pittsburgh’s greatest sports franchise. They are now already the NHL’s most successful American expansion team with 5 Stanley Cups one more than the legendary New York Islander teams that won 4 in a row. And they are currently tied with Edmonton which has also won 5 Stanley Cups as the most successful expansion team in NHL history.

The current team is so good it won the Stanley Cup without its best defenceman Kris Letang playing a single playoff game, and their best goaltender, Matt Murray missed three quarters of the playoffs. They are good enough to win for a third time in a row and perhaps even more.

They have already tied the New York Rangers, one of the “Original 6″ teams with 5 Stanley Cups. If they win again next year, they tie two more “Original 6″ teams, Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks with 6 victories and have the title, “greatest NHL expansion team”, all to themselves.

The Steelers are the all time Super Bowl Champion leaders with 6 so a victory by the Penguins next year puts them on an equal footing. And if they win again next year, it means 3 in a row, something neither the Pirates or Steelers have ever done.

The Penguins have already paid a visit to the Steelers training camp with the Stanley Cup and Sidney Crosby, on behalf of his Penguins teammates threw out the first pitch at a Pirates home game. So the friendly rivalry is on. The Penguins started out late compared to their MLB and NFL cousins and for just over two decades were in the doldrums. But in the last quarter of a century, they have caught up in a hurry and have a real chance to become Pittsburgh’s greatest professional sports team, something nobody would have dreamed of, half a century ago when the franchise was born.

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 2: The NHL Will Be Watching The Return Of The Montreal Expos Closely

In one of the first articles I wrote on this blog after the NHL officially announced its last expansion, was that the NFL, NBA, and MLB would be closely watching how the new NHL expansion developed. All had reasons to do it. Since the Mortgage Meltdown which dampened enthusiasm for expansion, none of the “big 4″ North American sports leagues had expanded for more than a decade.

Before the meltdown, it had seemed inevitable that all four sports leagues would realign into an NFL type structure and then expand to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams, 5 teams to a division. But the economic troubles have postponed expansion and the NHL was the first league to renew interest in a drive to become a 40 team league.

The arrogant NFL which seems committed to remaining a 32 team, 4 division league and prefers to strip its existing franchise cities of their teams and move them elsewhere, would show the least interest. But the NBA and MLB, which were both stuck at the awkward number of 30 teams like the NHL and needed to realign into the NFL structure with the symmetrical number of 32 teams, a prelude to expanding further later, had a special reason to watch the new NHL expansion closely.

Since the last time a league expanded was well over a decade ago, they would be paying close attention to the amount of expansion fee, the NHL would charge. They would be interested in how many teams the NHL wants to expand by. They would want to know how many bidders the NHL’s terms would attract and from which cities. They would want to know how many bidders would fully commit themselves. They would pay attention to fan ticket drives and the all important factor of new arenas/stadiums.

The NHL’s last attempt at expansion was a major failure, probably because they set an expansion fee of $500 million, plus a $10 million “consideration fee” which the investment world found unrealistic. Only fanatical Quebec and Las Vegas stuck it out to the end, and the Quebec bid was rejected because the NHL found the potential owner unsuitable. For this NHL expansion, there were no competing bids from rival cities. For this expansion, the NHL had to settle for what they could get. In the end, all they got was Las Vegas which increased the league to 31 teams, one short of realignment.

Before the NHL announced expansion, most media and Internet websites were reporting that there were 4 “done deals” already on the table, Seattle, second Toronto, Las Vegas, and Quebec. So what happened was a major disappointment for the NHL. As mentioned in the previous article in this series, the NHL was probably also trying to change its status in the United States; lots of bids for teams with that $500 million fee would confirm that NHL’s status in the United States was now at least closer in stature to the other three leagues. Instead all that was reconfirmed was that NHL remains number 4 in the US, maybe by a considerable margin.

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Now comes the news that MLB wants to eventually take the plunge and become a symmetrical league of 32 teams in an NFL type structure. The new franchises seem to be a returned Montreal Expos and a new expansion city.

Now it will be the NHL’s turn to watch. The same factors listed above will command the NHL’s attention. What is the value of an MLB team? Can or will they set a $500 million expansion fee or higher? Or is there a lesson to be learned from the NHL’s expansion which is that North American sports leagues expansion fees should be lower?

Certainly the result will be another way of determining the status of the NHL in the United States. How close are they to the status of Major League Baseball? If the NHL is now closer in stature in the United States to MLB, it means that the NHL can negotiate for a much higher contract from American television once their current contracts expire. But if the results go the other way, will this be another humiliation, another black eye in the story of the struggle to make hockey popular in the United States? That MLB successfully expanded by two cities to the NHL’s one. That MLB had lots of bidders for the two new teams while the NHL had no competition at all and had settle for what it could get. That MLB can realign easily while the NHL cannot. That the NHL does not merit a big increase in American television revenue and coverage.

Hockey fans that don’t usually pay attention to baseball now have a real reason to watch MLB expansion. What happens will not only tell something significant about MLB, it will also shed light on the status of the NHL in the United States.