There were a lot of long term and potential long term significant developments for hockey that occurred in 2017. This is probably my last article for the year so it is a good way of finishing it off by summarizing it. In no particular order, here are what I think were the most important developments in hockey of 2017.
1. The NHL Balances Its Conferences And Can Realign
By admitting Seattle, the NHL has reached 32 teams, just like the NFL and can now realign into an NFL structure of 2 conferences, with 4 divisions of 4 teams. Once Seattle is formally approved by the NHL, expect some kind of realignment by the NHL to follow. The only remaining question is whether any more expansion cities will be admitted to league before it realigns. All indications are that NHL is not prepared to halt at 32 teams but is aiming for the next symmetrical number of 40.
2. Jerry Bruckheimer And David Bonderman Save Gary Bettman’s NHL Expansion Bacon
The last NHL expansion involving Las Vegas was a failure. Probably what the NHL was aiming for was Quebec City and three western teams. Instead they only could get Las Vegas and the main reason was probably that the investment world would not accept a $500 million expansion fee. There was a distinct possibility that the NHL would have to postpone further expansion and realignment indefinitely unless they refunded some money back to Las Vegas owner Bill Foley and set a lower, more realistic expansion fee. But Bruckheimer and Bonderman broke through the investment standoff and even sweetened things by paying $650 million for a Seattle franchise. Now the NHL can expand to 40 teams and pick up a lot of cash along the way.
3. Seattle Gets An NHL Team
It’s a mere formality now. There will be the formal investigation, legal problems sorted out, a similar Bill Foley season ticket drive, but the NHL is not going to refund $650 million even if not a single person in Seattle buys a potential season ticket. Seattle is in the NHL, exactly 100 years after they won the Stanley Cup. The only two questions are why it took them so long and will their name be the Metropolitans again.
4. The Saving Of The New York Islanders
Hard on the heels of Seattle getting a team, the NHL got just as good news when the New York Islanders finally solved their arena problems after nearly 30 years. A new 18,000 seat arena will be built at Belmont and the Islanders can now build a competitive team at last, starting with the resigning of John Tavares.
5. Crosby/Malkin/Pittsburgh Legend Continues To Grow
Sidney Crosby continues to behave like his illustrious forebears on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, which is the link, starting with Maurice Richard in the 1940s of the best Canadian hockey player of his generation being head and shoulders above everybody else. It has been a continuous, overlapping chain since Richard and includes Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux. All have won at least one Stanley Cup. Crosby now has three and added another Conn Smythe Trophy as well. Crosby has been part of a pioneering experiment by Pittsburgh which no other NHL team in history has tried. That has been to take Canada’s best player and pair him with a top, maybe the best European player, to win Stanley Cups. The twosome of Crosby-Malkin, Lemieux-Jagr has now won five Stanley Cups. The Penguin legend has also grown. The first 25 years were not noteworthy and at times the franchise itself seemed in peril. But during the last 25 years, the Penguins have now tied the Pittsburgh Pirates for championships and are poised to challenge the Pittsburgh Steelers for best Pittsburgh major league team ever.
6. Emergence Of Connor McDavid As Crosby’s Successor
Connor McDavid has emerged as the successor of Sidney Crosby as Canada’s best player. McDavid won the scoring championship last year ahead of Crosby, a portent of future greatness. He has big skates to fill. Not only does he have to succeed Crosby on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, he has to succeed Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton. Gretzky, now part of the Oilers organization again is acting as his mentor. The big question is can Edmonton build a championship team around McDavid.
7. NHL Plays Regular Season Games In Europe Again
Things could not have gone better for the NHL when Ottawa and Colorado played two sold out games in Stockholm. Unlike the NFL, the NHL sent two decent teams for the fans. Bettman wants to develop international hockey and play more games in Europe, a target for potential NHL expansion in the future. The Senator-Avalanche games were a welcome return.
8. Emergence of South Korean Hockey
The other positive, significant development in international hockey was the emergence of South Korea from nowhere. The South Koreans have been promoted at both the junior and regular levels of international hockey. Awarded the Winter Olympics of 2018, the South Koreans have attempted to develop their international hockey program, and their men’s team is now at least as good as the usual “B Level” teams who have been around since before 1972. The South Koreans will make their debut against the traditional “Big 7″ countries in next year’s World Championships. Nobody knows how good this team is. Will they be demoted, or will they do something significant and finally turn the “Big 7″ into a “Big 8″?
9. Hartford Getting Back Into The NHL
Everybody knows about Quebec, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Winnipeg trying to get back into the NHL but Hartford finally emerged from inertia to have a chance at returning to the NHL in the near future. First they announced they would spend $250 million to renovate the XL Center into an arena that will seat more than 19,000. The mayor of Hartford and the governor of Connecticut then sent a letter to the New York Islanders inviting them to become the Hartford Whalers if they could not build a new arena. That has now come to nothing. But Hartford got good news when the NHL admitted Seattle because it meant that a renovated Seattle arena was acceptable instead of building a new one. There should be no reason for the NHL to reject a renovated XL Center. If Hartford can find a suitable owner to front an expansion bid, they should be back in the NHL soon.
10. NHL Not Acting Like The NFL
Perhaps just as important as what the NHL did is what they did not do. The NHL seems committed to expanding to 40 teams or more, a process that hurts nobody. And they respect and reward the contributions of their international players by trying to develop the game abroad and returning games between contending teams to Europe. In contrast, to get teams back in Los Angeles, their potential second largest market, which had snubbed them for 20 years, the NFL cruelly stripped St. Louis and San Diego of their teams despite a loyal following, instead of expanding their league. They followed that up by stripping Oakland of the Raiders and packing them off to Las Vegas. The NFL also shows its contempt for foreigners by sending games between bottom of the barrel teams that have no chance of selling out in the United States off to London. This obvious show of disdain has brought protests from British fans of the NFL. The NHL, the NBA, and MLB will do well to avoid the NFL’s path.
11. Success Of The Las Vegas Golden Knights
The NHL offered generous terms for the Knights to get started, but you also need good ownership and management to take advantage of it. Las Vegas has actually created a team with a good coach that might make the playoffs in its very first year. Winning has made the team a hit. It shows that good ownership and management can make a doubtful market a success.
12. NHL Centennial Celebrations
The NHL celebrated its 100th anniversary successfully. They got many veteran players involved, held a successful road show, added a new franchise, had fan competitions about best all time NHL moments and best uniforms, and held a cumulative outdoor game in Ottawa between the Senators and Canadiens. The only quibble I have is that they did not award returned franchises to Quebec and Hamilton to coincide with Canada’s 150th birthday (See below).
1. Continued Quebec City Frustration
In 2010, Commissioner Bettman toured Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, the three cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s and offered them terms for readmission. These terms, which also apply to every future NHL expansion team are excellent fan base (which all three cities have); a proper NHL arena; and a suitable NHL owner (No mention of any expansion fee). Winnipeg is already back and Quebec and Hartford are making attempts to return too. The Quebec market stretches from half way to Montreal eastward and includes all four Maritime provinces, several million people, and the released Canadian Census says that metropolitan Quebec itself is now over 800,000. The NHL also loves the new Videotron arena which it rewarded with a World Cup exhibition game and Montreal preseason games.
So the problem is at the ownership factor because the NHL does not find Pierre Karl Peladeau, an active Quebec political separatist, who made public, racist comments about one of the Board members, Geoff Molson, owner of the Montreal Canadiens, remarks that probably offended not only Molson but other members of the Board and Commissioner Bettman, and who is considered generally untrustworthy, acceptable. The NHL cannot afford to have a public racist on its Board of Directors. Recent new and potential owners Chipman and Thomson (Winnipeg), Foley (Las Vegas), Fertitta (Houston), Molson himself (Montreal), and now Bruckheimer and Bonderman (Seattle), have all been seen in Bettman’s company but never Peladeau. The NHL, including Commissioner Bettman and Geoff Molson want a Quebec City team, but not with Peladeau involved. So far the NHL has not been able to find a suitable alternative bid from another bidder so Quebec, one of the two best markets in Canada without an NHL team, remains in suspension, “deferred” until a suitable owner appears.
2. Arizona Coyotes Soap Opera
If the NHL managed to resolve the New York Islanders arena problem, they are miles away in Phoenix which refuses to spend public money to build a new arena for a “professional” franchise that has only iced one competitive team in its entire history. Both suburban Glendale public officials and Bettman and the Arizona ownership have publicly said they are finished with each other. Bettman stood before the Arizona Legislature to plead for public funding for a new arena but instead of being able to show competent management and ownership, he was presented with a team so bad that it was out of playoff contention after only ten games in the current season. Try and get the money now. The success of the Las Vegas Golden Knights in another desert city shows how bad the Coyotes have been. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns ownership publicly insulted the Coyotes by renovating their arena to make it more basketball friendly instead of going into partnership with them to build a new arena. Quebec, Houston, Hartford, Portland and elsewhere, here we come.
3. Calgary Flames Blackmail
The citizens and officials of Calgary are rightly concerned about spending public tax dollars on vague projects like “Calgary Next” where the final price tag is not known for sure. Actually the current Calgary Saddledome arena is one of the better ones in the NHL with over 19,000 seats. It is only 34 years old, not even close to the renovated 41 year old XL Center in Hartford or to the 55 year old Key Arena in Seattle. Just what is wrong with the Saddledome, the Flames ownership won’t say. Since the NHL is willing to accept renovated arenas, a cheaper Saddledome renovation could probably be negotiated. But instead of talking, the Flames ownership which wants a free new arena it doesn’t have to pay for, took its cue from the NFL and made threats about relocating. Since when are professional sports franchises owners “owed” new arenas and stadiums from the public? According to the Flames ownership logic, the 86 year old Empire State Building should have been torn down and replaced decades ago.
4. The NHL Pulling Out Of the Pyeongchang Olympics
South Korea also figures in one of the two worst things about international hockey in 2017. Pyeongchang is not glamorous enough for the snobs in the United States and Canada so Gary Bettman pulled the NHL out of the 2018 Olympics but said that they might return for the next one in Beijing, China which is in exactly the same time zone as Pyeongchang. But the South Koreans may get the last laugh if they do anything significant at next year’s World Championships where they will compete against top competition for the first time. If South Korea turns out to be the long-sought eighth member of the “Big 7″, that will be a huge embarrassment for Bettman and the NHL which will have snubbed a potential new NHL market of 50 million people. It will also mean that the NHL will have snubbed the only country that has managed to raise its game from the “B Level” to the “A Level”. What a wonderful way to grow international hockey.
5. Still No Plan For Raising The Quality Of International Hockey
The other major international hockey problem has been around since before 1972 when NHL professionals first played against international competition, the USSR national team. Back then there were boasts that hockey would soon be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But the “Big 7″ of hockey in 1972 are still the “Big 7″ of hockey in 2017. In 45 years, there has been no expansion of hockey’s base, a resounding failure. There are approximately 50 countries that play hockey including over a dozen countries (now joined by South Korea) at the “B Level” of play. Bettman unofficially recognized this problem at the revived World Cup when he created Team Europe and Team North America. He did not want any boring mismatches between “Big 7″ teams and “B Level” countries. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team. His World Cup of hockey will never gain the stature of the World Cup of soccer until hockey’s base is broadened. Thousands of potential talented hockey careers, maybe as good as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr have been lost. Bettman has proposed several good plans for growing international hockey but nothing about resolving the competition problem. But until this problem is finally faced up to and dealt with honestly, the man with the best intentions will see his international plans limited and the growth of international hockey stunted.
6. Racism and Elitism Continue To Thwart NHL Growth In Canada
It was the 150th birthday of Canada and nothing would have been better for the NHL to join in the celebrations and also of its own centennial than to restore two Canadian franchises, Quebec City, and Hamilton. For Quebec City, since the NHL cannot find acceptable, local, French Canadian owners, the obvious solution is to get outside investors like Anglophone Quebecers, investors from “English Canada”, and investors from the United States. This is a common practice, since both Winnipeg and Ottawa are owned by Torontonians. Here Quebec City history comes back to haunt them. Remembering the discriminatory language legislation which caused thousands of Anglophone Quebecers to flee Quebec and the continuing efforts by racist political parties like the Parti Quebecois to take Quebec out of Canada, no outside investor wants to take a chance on reviving the Quebec Nordiques. They are too afraid that the racists though a Parti Quebecois government will pass legislation making it impossible for outsiders to operate a professional sports team in the province of Quebec. This hampers not only the chance of Quebec getting the Nordiques back, but chances to get a CFL team, the Winter Olympics, a World’s Fair, and tourist dollars via international conventions. Indeed it is possible to argue that if outside investors were not frightened by political and economic consequences, Quebec City which was a great NHL franchise, one of the better ones in the league, a sure money-maker with a proper arena, would not have lost the Nordiques in 1995 and would have built the Videotron long ago without any taxpayer money being used.
The other ugly Canadian trait is elitism which has been around since the days of New France where everybody knew his place in society, the British version held by the Canadian Loyalists, both of which cumulated in the Rebellions of 1837. Elitism has not gone away since then. For me personally, in almost every job I would have in Canada, there would be somebody picking on somebody else because they were deemed not good enough for them. The ugliest incident in recent years was the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons and other “undesirables” because of the non-stop torments of those who considered her not “one of them”.
For the NHL, elitism means Canadian franchise NHL owners not willing to share the national market with other Canadians. Specifically right now it means owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres not setting reasonable compensation terms so that Hamilton or another southern Ontario market can join the NHL. It will hold true for Quebec City, a second Montreal team, a third southern Ontario team, and Saskatoon. All through NHL history, Canadians and Canadian franchise owners have frustrated or postponed new Canadian teams from joining the league. Villains include Stafford Smythe, Harold Ballard, Jack Kent Cooke, Molson Breweries, and lately Pierre Karl Peladeau. Canadians make up a myth that American Gary Bettman and the American NHL owners are “anti-Canadian” which is not true at all. Actually the only valid criticism of Bettman, John Ziegler, and Clarence Campbell is that they have refused to rein in the Canadian franchise owners for the good of the game in Canada.
7. NHL Still Being Hurt By A Corrupt Health Care Industry
From my own personal experience, I know that coronary heart disease (heart attacks, blood clots and strokes, etc.) and gall stones, both officially labeled “incurable diseases” by official international medical authorities are curable. I would probably be dead nine years ago until I took a remedy for heart disease that had been classified as “alternative medicine” by the official health care industry. I have also been told by reliable sources that hay fever and other allergies can be cured by Shiatsu Massage. On this blog in many articles I described how the corrupt health care industry indirectly, significantly decided the Stanley Cup winner of 2016. Too many people are making too much money from suffering and death to allow new “cures” to be recognized. Since the NHL ties itself to “official medicine”, it is reluctant to try new successful things that are not recognized. Each November, the NHL proclaims is “Cancer Awareness Month” but who knows if any other effective cancer treatments have been blocked by the health care industry? Still worse, nobody questions what is going on. Alternative medicine is growing. Sooner or later the truth will come out.
8. The NHL’s Poor Treatment Of Older Players
Old but productive players like Jaromir Jagr, Shane Doan, and Jerome Iginla have been poorly treated since the end of last season. Doan was forced to retire, Iginla is out of hockey, and Jagr is reduced to third line status in Calgary. All were productive, particularly Jagr last year. The only reason for the poor treatment was that these players are older now. It is true they are not what they were, but that does not mean that they cannot have major roles on an NHL team any more. With modern conditioning and medical improvements, the playing days, particularly of top players have been extended. Where 35 was probably the average age to retire, years ago, today it is reasonable to expect 40+ as a retirement age which will only grow longer as more medical and conditioning techniques improve. These three players are merely the start of a coming trend. The NHL continues to ignore it.