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”?

 

Undeserved End For Inglorious Blue Jackets

Nobody expected the Columbus Blue Jackets to make the playoffs. They were the biggest surprise of the 2016-17 NHL regular season. They over-achieved and finished with the third best record in the Eastern Conference.

But their reward was to face the team with the second best record, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, certainly the team to beat in the east, if not the favorite to win it all again for the second straight year. They were probably the worst team the Blue Jackets could have drawn in the first round of the playoffs. Even playing first-place choker, Washington would have been better.

Actually this should not be an issue at all. Indeed, this article should not have to be written. Everybody should be proud of the Blue Jackets, giving their fans the finest season in the franchise history which included a near-NHL record of 16 straight wins, making the playoffs, and then winning a game in the first round against the team that is probably the favorite to win this year’s Stanley Cup tournament. But it’s not enough.

The Blue Jackets play in probably the strangest area for NHL professional hockey in North America, Ohio-Indiana, close to the Canadian border where hockey should be a hotbed. Instead mysteriously, top level hockey is very unpopular in this region and nobody has ever been able to explain why. In my articles, I refer to the region as the “Death Valley” of top level professional hockey. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis are failed NHL-WHA franchises. Not even Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier could save hockey in this region when they played for the various defunct teams. Columbus is simply the best and longest surviving NHL team.

So the pressure was on the Blue Jackets to win this playoff round, not because it was Pittsburgh, not because it meant progress for the team, but to convince the Ohio-Indiana sports fan to support the franchise. Ever since the founding of this team in 2000, it has been a precarious franchise. In many of its seasons, the team has lost money. Gimmicks and low ticket prices have been used to attract fans. During many of its seasons, there have been rumors of it being folded or moved to another city.

Its history is inglorious. The Blue Jackets have only made the playoffs three times in 17 years and have yet to win a playoff round. Their playoff record is now 3-12. That record is not going to pack them in. I don’t care if their opponent was the Pittsburgh Penguins, the likely Stanley Cup winner. Columbus HAD to win that series.

Sure the Blue Jackets had their best season ever and sure the Blue Jackets nearly broke the NHL record for consecutive wins. The Ohio-Indiana fan is going to smile and be proud, but they won’t be convinced and believe in this team unless they see progress in the playoffs where it really counts. A playoff victory over somebody is the symbol of that progress or lack of progress. Instead the Blue Jackets drew the worst opponent that they and the NHL could have wanted. For this year at least, the NHL has to rue the playoff format that they had set up. Calgary can be swept in four games by Anaheim but that’s okay. The fans are going to be pleased with the progress made and come back next year. Not so in Columbus.

In my prediction article, I wrote that Columbus would have been better off if Pittsburgh’s goaltender Matt Murray had been injured instead of defenseman Kris Letang, because Pittsburgh would have been forced to play the erratic Marc Andre Fleury. But Pittsburgh played without Letang AND Murray and still won easily. Columbus made Fleury look better than he really is. They are far from being a true contender. That is not going impress Ohio-Indiana fans.

Columbus is mostly a team of no-names who played good, dependable hockey this year. They have few star players to attract crowds. And next year, it is quite conceivable that they won’t make the playoffs again. Pittsburgh, Washington, New York Rangers and Montreal are still around. Toronto, Ottawa, and Boston all improved. It is quite conceivable that Philadelphia, New York Islanders, Florida, Carolina and possibly Buffalo will be good enough to make the playoffs next year if they draft and trade well in the off season. It will be very difficult for Columbus to replicate this year’s success.

By losing so ingloriously to Pittsburgh (even if they do win the Stanley Cup) in the first round of the playoffs, Columbus will probably lose most of the attendance gains they made this year. They needed to make believers out of people in a region where hockey is unpopular, but this playoff episode did more harm than good. The NHL has been praying for this franchise to turn around but they got the worst playoff pairing that was possible. The shadow of Quebec, Hamilton, Hartford or wherever still hangs over this franchise. A sad ending for a team that deserved better this season.

Hartford Trying To Take Another Step Back To The NHL

As reported in January, Hartford is taking the first tangible steps to make a returned Whalers move from nostalgia and dreams back to having an NHL franchise again by proposing to upgrade the 41 year old XL Center by a $250 million renovation with seating increased to a more than adequate 19,000. When I heard about it, I wondered if it would not be better to build a brand new modern arena, provided the cost could kept at the Quebec Videotron level, of under $400 million. Costs for a new arena have been set as high as over $500 million but if Quebec can build a cheaper arena, why can’t Hartford?

Whatever, whether it is a new arena or a renovated old one, what is important is that a returned Hartford Whalers is no longer dormant but has the possibility of reality. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three NHL cities that lost their teams in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, and outlined three reasonable conditions for returning to the league: Great fan-base (which all three cities have), a proper NHL-size arena, and acceptable ownership (no mention of a $500 million entry fee). The tour produced immediate results in Winnipeg and Quebec. Winnipeg is already back in the NHL and Quebec built the Videotron arena, but is stuck at the ownership factor.

But no response came from Hartford. The then mayor declared his support for a new arena and a returned Whalers as part of a large downtown reclamation project but no action occurred until last year’s proposal for a renovated XL Center.

Now Hartford has taken another tangible step to try and get back into the NHL, but not by expansion but relocation. The target is their closest neighbor, the New York Islanders, a franchise with known arena problems.

islanders

Currently the Islanders play in probably the worst arena in the NHL, the Barclay’s Center which has poor ice, the second smallest seating capacity in the NHL, and is the only NHL arena with obstructed seats for hockey. Their fans have shown how much they like the arena by giving the team the second worst attendance in the current season. The Islanders are under contract to play there for two more years but already there is talk of either moving back to their old, newly renovated home on Long Island or building a brand new, larger, modern arena in Queens.

Recently, the Governor of Connecticut and the Hartford mayor signed a letter addressed to the Islanders ownership and management proposing that the team be moved to Hartford when either renovations are completed or a new arena built. They point out that 3.1 million potential fans live within an hour’s drive of the arena and that the team would now be located much closer to its farm team in Bridgeport. And they project that a renovated arena would turn a $2.1 million annual profit.

There has been no response to the letter by the Islanders. The only talk is about being committed to the Barclay’s Center for the immediate future, and the possibility of the Queens arena being built.

From the NHL’s viewpoint, there are three advantages to shifting the Islanders to Hartford. First it honors Bettman’s 2010 promise of bringing back the three lost franchises if they meet his conditions. The second is that the Islanders move out of a bad arena into a better one. The third is that by relocating instead of expanding, the NHL would only have to add one more western expansion team to balance up the conferences and realign into an NFL type structure. And a returned Hartford would be able to renew its rivalries with the New York area teams, the Rangers and Devils, any Quebec based teams, plus possibly Buffalo, Ottawa, and Toronto and above all the Boston Bruins.

The difficulty with shifting the Islanders to Hartford is their heritage and history. Does the NHL want the only American NHL franchise to win four consecutive Stanley Cups, a feat only accomplished twice before by Montreal, and the American expansion franchise currently tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for most Stanley Cup victories by an expansion team since 1967 to disappear? Losing a 45 year old franchise with such a glorious history like the Islanders would be damaging to the league’s image and prestige. It was one thing to shift inglorious, unwanted, Atlanta to Winnipeg. It would be much tougher for the Islanders to leave.

Probably the NHL secretly would prefer the Queens arena proposal and hope everything works out. It is doubtful that the Islanders will remain in the Barclay’s Center when their contract expires. But perhaps the governor and mayor have targeted the wrong Eastern Conference franchise. It would be much easier shifting inglorious Florida or Columbus, two other teams with serious attendance problems.

Also with Bettman making proposals to bring back the three lost franchises plus expanding to Las Vegas, it shows that the NHL is willing to expand past the symmetrical 32 team barrier to the next symmetrical number of 40 (2 conferences with 4 divisions each, with 5 teams to a division). And offering Hartford an expansion team instead allows the league to collect another $500 million expansion fee.

But whether if by arena renovation, or new construction, expansion or relocation, the important thing is that the Hartford Whalers are now being talked about as becoming a reality again, instead of memories and nostalgia. The important thing is that significant public officials as well as their old fans want the Whalers back. Perhaps the next tangible step will be when a suitable rich investor who believes in a returned Hartford Whalers steps forward to make that dream come true.

Sad Fall Of The Islanders

Of course it is unofficial but the New York Islanders may be the first Eastern Conference team to be eliminated from playoff contention. Unless they go on an unexpected long winning streak, the Islanders are playing for a top draft choice next year.

It is a bitter outcome for a franchise that finally won a playoff round (against Florida) for the first time in eons of years. At the end of last season after the playoff victory, it seemed that if ownership and management made the right moves, the Islanders would finally enter the ranks as true Stanley Cup contenders. Instead the Islanders lost talent and now find themselves near the bottom of the whole league.

It would be tempting to place the blame on the players, coaching, management, and even the ownership. Unfortunately the Islanders problems run deeper than that. The very environment in which the Islanders dwell bears a heavy share of the blame.

This situation is even more sad when one remembers the glorious history of the Islanders. They joined the league in 1972 and immediately set the then record for worst expansion team in NHL history. But the Islanders hired Al Arbour as coach and in only their third NHL season, the Islanders became the fastest expansion team (still a record) to become a true Stanley Cup contender.

There followed a steady path to the top when Islander ownership and management, headed by General Manager Bill Torrey seldom made an error. First Denis Potvin was drafted, then Bryan Trottier, and Mike Bossy followed. Smart trades filled in the holes. In 1980 the Islanders finally won the Stanley Cup and began four invincible years as champion. Only two previous Montreal Canadiens teams have managed to win four Stanley Cups in a row or better. It took the mighty Edmonton Oilers led by Wayne Gretzky, in their third attempt to stop the Islanders streak. No other American expansion team has done so well. No other NHL team has come close to the Islanders streak since.

But once the glory years ended the Islanders tumbled to the bottom of the league and have mostly stayed there ever since. They seldom had star players on their roster. The current star, John Tavares is probably the Islanders best player since the dynasty.

The two main reasons for this state of affairs are probably the arena and the environment. Once the glory years were over, the Islanders reverted to being the poor cousins of the New York Rangers. They would be joined in this status by the New Jersey Devils across the river. Ironically since joining the league, both teams have done better than the original Manhattan resident Rangers. Both the Islanders and Devils more than merit better status among New York hockey fans than the New York Rangers but they retain the shabby status of being a hockey after-thought to this day. Is the greater New York area of 19 million residents big enough for three NHL teams? All things point to the answer, “no”.

After the glory years, the Islanders more than merited a new, modern, larger arena, but nothing would be done. The Islander tradition, heritage and success would be belittled and forgotten. In 2014, the Islanders moved to the new Barclay arena in Brooklyn which incredibly is even smaller than their old arena which was the second smallest in the NHL, ahead of only Winnipeg. Even more ridiculous is that over 1000 seats are considered “obstructive view”. No wonder attendance this year is so low.

A sports arena is part of a franchise’s team. A too-small arena that cannot generate enough revenue means that ownership and management cannot sign enough star players to build a credible team. If they cannot do that, the franchise will never be able to become a champion and might as well not be in the league. It is shabby treatment for a team with such a glorious heritage.

Incredibly the Islanders still cannot sell out the Barclay’s arena. Currently they have the second worst attendance in the NHL, ahead of only Carolina. They average 12.5 thousand fans a game, which is only 80% capacity of the arena. There is talk of building yet another new arena in Queens. Would that end the image of the Islanders being the poor relation of the Rangers?

In any sports situation where things are going sour, there is usually an answer to the situation. Get rid of the players, fire the coach, replace the incompetent general manager and upper management, make the cancerous owner sell. But many of the Islander problems may be beyond the capacity of even the ownership. Do the New York fans even want the Islanders and Devils (who have the sixth worst attendance record)?

If the New York fans do not want these teams, there are plenty of cities who do, most notably Quebec. One year a large delegation of Quebec fans journeyed down en-masse and bought a large quantity of unsold Islander tickets to show their determination to get back in the NHL. But a new Quebec team would have a Nordiques logo, not an Islander one. Other cities that may be in the hunt for an NHL franchise are Hamilton, Seattle (if it can solve its arena and ownership problem), Portland, Saskatoon, Milwaukee, and possibly Houston, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City.

But after the glorious history of the Islanders it would be a black mark on the NHL if the team left New York. Not to see the Long Island logo in the NHL any more would be a terrible blow to the league. It is one thing for inglorious Atlanta to go to Winnipeg. It is quite another for a team with such a history and heritage to leave. It would be a terrible blow to the status of the NHL in the United States which has been trying since Commissioner Gary Bettman’s appointment to prove to everyone (particularly to American television networks in order to get a rich contract) that the NHL is a “big 4″ American professional sports league.

True that since the dynasty years, the Islanders have iced bad teams, but New York fans have stuck with the Rangers who at times have done far worse. Since the Islanders and Devils have joined the NHL, the score in Stanley Cups reads Islanders 4, Devils 3, Rangers 1. Why the Islanders and Devils are unpopular after such successes is one of the NHL’s mysteries.

As noted above, trading players, firing coaches and management, and getting rid of incompetent owners seem to be easy solutions compared to the situation the Islanders are in. The previous sentence I wrote implies an obvious answer to franchise problems. But the Islander problem is even worse. For them there is no immediate, obvious answer. Is a new, modern, larger, more convenient arena the solution? For the second-status New York Islanders, it had better be.

Possible New Chapter In Arizona Coyotes Story

After a few years of quiet, there may be fresh series of episodes in the Arizona Coyotes soap opera (I mean story). If no one wants to see the team play (Arizona still has one of the poor attendance records in the NHL), at least it still gets the media’s attention by its survival status.

It is being reported on the Internet that the citizens of Glendale who fought to the death to keep a tenant in their arena and out of Hamilton, Ontario are now sick of paying fees to the NHL as part of that bargain and want someone to take the team off their hands and leave them with an empty arena in peace. It is rumored that the Coyotes will not be moved far, but to the other side of Phoenix, in Tempe, Arizona in yet another new arena to be built.

It hardly needs mentioning that this latest possible series of chapters in this regrettable epic is yet another major embarrassment to the NHL and its status in the United States. Aiming to prove to American television to win a lucrative contract, Gary Bettman and the NHL Board have let franchises move or be planted anywhere in the United States to show that hockey is “America’s game”. The old Winnipeg Jets were shifted to questionable desert Phoenix. Hartford left New England for warm, sunny, doubtful Carolina. Right now some of the lowest attendance figures in the NHL are in Phoenix, Arizona, Raleigh, Carolina, Miami, Florida, and an ill considered move by the New York Islanders to Brooklyn. This new report of a possible Coyote move, however close it may be, is not a good omen for the possible success of the NHL’s newest desert team, Las Vegas. Meanwhile cities like Quebec City and Hamilton who are dying for an NHL franchise and Portland which has deep roots in Canadian junior hockey and might have submitted a bid during the last NHL expansion until it saw that $500 million expansion fee are without teams.

It is doubtful that the Coyotes will move to Tempe, at least in the near future. There are a lot of multi-million dollar hurdles to be overcome before a single shovel begins construction of a new arena. Given the fact that it takes nearly 2-3 years to build an arena or stadium, the residents of Glendale are going to be stuck with the Coyotes for probably at least half a decade.

If they want the Coyotes to move immediately, their best chance is for an investor to move the team out of Arizona. But Hamilton and Quebec fans can forget about a move east because that would unbalance the NHL conferences even more. Canada’s best chance for the Coyotes is still Saskatoon if they can find an owner and build a suitable arena.`

More likely the Coyotes would be moved to a western American city. Right now Portland is the perfect choice. Milwaukee would be a top contender if they could find an owner. Other reasonable choices to where the NHL might have a chance of success are Kansas City, Houston, San Francisco (if they follow through with their rumored new arena), and Oklahoma City. Seattle, the best choice of all still cannot settle its arena problem.

Bettman and the NHL Board have noone to blame but themselves for this continuing mess. Jim Balsillie and Hamilton offered them a reasonable way out a few years ago, but the NHL fought vehemently against this obvious solution. Their reward has been a few years of money-losing quiet and now the possibility of more regrettable chapters in what seems to be a never-ending franchise struggle for survival.