Happy Birthday Canada: You Still Only Have 7 NHL Teams

2017 is Canada’s Sesquicentennial (150 years) and the Centennial of the NHL which Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL Board intend to celebrate all through the year. In 1917 the NHL was an all-Canadian affair. 50 years later in 1967, there were 4 American teams to 2 Canadian and then 10 American to 2 Canadian. Today the score is Am 31 Can 7.

Should there be more NHL Canadian teams? Unquestionably. Why are there no more? Two of the answers are obvious. The United States is more wealthy and has a larger population. Fair enough. Unless there is a dramatic shift in climate accompanied by a mass migration north, or a war of conquest by Canada, the United States is bound to have more teams. But only 7 Canadian teams. Only 7?

Are any more Canadian cities feasible right now? Quebec is the 7th largest city in Canada and built a beautiful new arena but they got turned down by the NHL in 2016. Hamilton has a suitable NHL arena which the city council will modify further if they are awarded a team. There is the possibility of second Montreal and third southern Ontario teams too. And in the long run, a Saskatchewan team probably located in Saskatoon. Right now there is the possibility of 4 new teams, making a total of 11.

Quebec (twice under different names) and Hamilton were once members of the NHL. So was a second Montreal team, the Maroons. And when the NHL was competing against the champion of the western leagues, Western Canada Hockey League, and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (which also contained franchises in Portland and Seattle [the first American city to win the Stanley Cup], American cities that somehow still do not have an NHL franchise) for the Stanley Cup, franchises from Victoria, New Westminster, Regina, Saskatoon, and Moose Jaw were competing at the highest professional level. In 1907, the little town of Kenora won the Stanley Cup. That is at least 9 more Canadian franchises in professional hockey history. It proves that professional hockey at the highest level has shrunk in Canada, not grown. It confirms that Canada is under-represented in the present NHL.

The first NHL American team, the Boston Bruins, did not join the league until 1924. Big money and then the Depression whittled the number of Canadian teams down to two by 1940. But bad economic times, an increase in operating expenses to own and run a professional hockey team, and a difference in population do not tell the complete story of why there is only 7 teams in the present NHL. Three ugly Canadian traits, greed, elitism, and bad faith do.

When the first expansion of the league occurred in 1967, it was assumed that Vancouver would be one of the new teams. But Vancouver’s franchise became the St. Louis Blues, much to the howling of fans right across Canada. It seems that the franchise owners from Toronto and Montreal did not want to share Canadian television money or the Canadian market with anyone else. Vancouver would finally get its franchise three years later in 1970. But the ugly pattern of excluding new Canadian teams led by existing Canadian franchise owners had begun.

It is a myth, held by many Canadians to this day that NHL American franchise owners led by NHL American leaders John Ziegler, and Gary Bettman are anti-Canadian and do not want more Canadian franchises. Nothing could be further from the truth. At every point in NHL expansion history, we see Canadians showing bad faith, no generosity, and thwarting and excluding other Canadians.

After seeing the difficulty of adding new Canadian franchises to the NHL by the Vancouver episode, other rich Canadians abandoned the idea of buying their way into the NHL. Instead with American partners, they sought to compete against the NHL by starting a new league, the WHA. The NHL franchises of the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, and the would-be-returned Quebec Nordiques were born.

The Canadian franchise owners of the WHA had a very different attitude to adding new Canadian teams than their NHL counterparts. The best attendance for the WHA came from Canadian cities. The very survival of the WHA depended on them. Edmonton so believed in the Oilers that they built the modern Northlands Coliseum before the NHL-WHA merger which would be their home until 2016. At one time Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto would briefly have WHA teams. There would even be a Canadian division set up.

As player salaries skyrocketed, there was pressure to merge the leagues. The main opponents were Canadian Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard and ex-Canadian Jack Kent Cooke of the Los Angeles Kings. So Canadian franchises were excluded from the NHL by Canadians until 1980 when the leagues merged. Today both Edmonton and Winnipeg are in the NHL and Quebec desperately wants to return.

After the merger, Calgary got its team the following year when the Flames became the first of two Atlanta franchises to flee to Canada. Hamilton built a modern arena and should have got a team until the bidder, Tim Donut, made the mistake of questioning the NHL’s expansion terms, and a returned Hamilton became a returned Ottawa Senators.

But in the bad economic times of the 1990s, Winnipeg and Quebec which had both refused to build modern, adequate arenas when they joined the NHL and tried to get by on the cheap, could no longer be feasible NHL franchises. No new Canadian owners believed in the teams or new arenas. This combination of bad economic times and bad faith would result in the shift of the Jets to Phoenix and the Nordiques to Denver.

Elitism, bad faith, and exclusion still keep Canadian NHL franchises to a minimum. They are traits that have been around since the beginning of Canadian history. New France was a society in which everyone knew his place. There was the Governor, Bishop, Intendant, a few appointed public officials, and seigneurs at the top and the mass of habitants at the bottom. The only escape was to become a renegade coureur de bois fur trader.

When the Conservative Loyalists fled from the United States after the American Revolution they simply created a British branch with these traits. After the War Of 1812, they passed legislation making it more difficult for Americans to immigrate to Canada and own land. In 1837, two rebellions were fought against elitist, oligarchic government in the two sections of Canada.

I have seen these traits in Canada almost every day of my life. In almost every job I would ever have in Canada, there would be somebody picking on somebody else. People who had positions would use their power to exclude others from promotions, salary increases and impose penalties making peoples’ lives miserable. The ugliest incident I would see occurred a few years ago. Ask the family of Rehtaeh Parsons who committed suicide what it is like when a group of elitist, exclusionists decide that someone “is not one of them”.

As for the NHL, Commissioner Gary Bettman turned down Quebecor’s bid to bring back the Nordiques without a second thought because its owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau, a known supporter of the provincial party Parti Quebecois which has twice tried to take Quebec out of Canada by referendum and passed discriminatory legislation against minority languages, made inappropriate, public, racist remarks about one of the NHL Board Of Governors, Geoff Molson, owner of the Montreal Canadiens. The NHL will not tolerate a public racist on its Board of Governors. Peladeau destroyed the dream of every Quebec Nordiques fan right across Canada by his exclusionary, elitist remarks.

The main reason why Hamilton or other potential second and third southern Ontario NHL franchise cities like second Toronto, Oshawa, Kitchener, and London do not have a team is the opposition of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres to having new, competitive franchises in their market. Other regions like New York-New York-New Jersey, Los Angeles-Anaheim, plus every similar situation in the NFL, NBA and MLB have managed to work something out. But in implacable Canada, all these potential NHL franchise cities remain excluded. The same elitist opposition will probably show itself should anyone try to bring back the Montreal Maroons. And of course should a future bid for a Saskatoon franchise or anywhere else in Canada appear, there will be grounds for exclusion on the basis of sharing television money.

In the United States, Bill Foley, the new owner of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, merely pays some money and signs a few papers to become an NHL franchise owner. In Canada, somebody’s rump has to be kissed repeatedly over and over. Is it any wonder why Gary Bettman and the NHL are reluctant to put new franchises in Canada? On the contrary, they would be fully justified on turning their backs forever on a country that consistently raises objections and opposition, shows little faith and refuses to respond in moments of crisis as what happened to Winnipeg and Quebec in the 1990s, and shows little generosity or willingness to share.

So happy 150th birthday Canada. Once you had the majority of teams competing for the Stanley Cup. But today it is 7. Only 7. Ask yourself why.

NHL Cannot Forget Cleveland

Last month on this blog, a colleague, Amanda, wrote about the AHL Championship of the Lake Erie Monsters and complained that ESPN did not do much to report about it. She extolled that the Monsters were playing to near sellout crowds and felt that the Monsters were not getting their due from the media.

Obviously Amanda is from a much younger generation and does not know the story of the NHL’s very brief attempt to bring big league hockey to Cleveland in the 1970s. As matter of fact it is part of a greater mystery that I have written about on another blog, the story of big league hockey in Ohio and Indiana.

In light of her article and in this current era of NHL expansion with Las Vegas getting the NHL’s 31st team and Gary Bettman currently frantically working behind the scenes to find a suitable Quebec City owner instead of racist Quebecor (probably Mario Lemieux, see my full series of recent articles to get the complete story of this unfortunate situation) so that the Nordiques can become the 32nd team, it is good to ask the question about why Cleveland – and for that matter Cincinnati and Indianapolis – does not get mentioned when NHL expansion is discussed. The answer might help explain to Amanda and others why there is poor media coverage about Lake Erie – with the NHL’s blessing.

As mentioned above, I have written about this situation on another blog, where I have called Ohio-Indiana, hockey’s Death Valley. It should not be. It is a region close to the Canadian border and between such American hockey hotbeds as Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the east and Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota in the west. The only team to claim fans in the region is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets in fact are the longest surviving big league hockey team in Ohio-Indiana and even they have lost money for many years of their existence and there have been rumors that the team would be moved.

Minor league hockey has had some success in the two states since before I was born. The Cleveland Barons had many successful minor league years. But surprisingly big league hockey has failed to prosper and no one has ever been able to explain why.

The story of big league hockey in Ohio-Indiana begins with the WHA, a league that was formed in the early 1970s to challenge the NHL’s monopoly, just like the AFL once challenged the NFL. The WHA had a very patchy history and the four remnants of the league, Quebec, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Hartford merged into the NHL in 1980. But the size of the league was always fluctuating, sometimes reaching as many as twelve teams in various cities.

At one time, the league had franchises in all the big cities of Ohio and Indiana except Columbus. In fact the Cleveland team, called the Crusaders played in the best arena of the WHA, that seated approximately 18,500.

But the Crusaders failed to attract enough fans and went out of business. When that happened, the NHL jumped into the pond. They had a troubled franchise of their own since the first expansion of 1967, the bay area Oakland, sometimes called California Golden Seals. When they saw the WHA vacating their best arena, they immediately shifted the ill-starred Seals to Cleveland and renamed them the Barons in memory of their traditional minor league team. It was thought that the reason hockey failed in Cleveland was because the WHA was not “big league” enough and that once the NHL moved in, every seat in that 18,500 seat arena would be filled.

But the NHL actually did worse than the WHA. Usually attendance was between 5000-6000. In a 40 home game season, the Barons only drew more than 10,000 fans 7 times. After the payroll was missed twice, and there was talk of folding the team in mid-season, something that had not happened to the NHL since the 1940s, the NHLPA made a loan of $1.3 million so that the team could finish the season.

The team was sold to new owners who invested a lot of money to keep the Barons playing in Cleveland but the result was still the same. One night Cleveland defenceman Len Frig who was being ejected from a game, took off his jersey and flung it on the ice in frustration in front of the usual 5000 fans.

The next year the NHL folded the team and merged it with another troubled franchise, the Minnesota North Stars. Ohio-Indiana would never have another NHL team until the Blue Jackets were created in 2000.

Meanwhile the WHA still tried to keep its Indianapolis and Cincinnati teams going. Many people do not remember that Wayne Gretzky’s first professional team was Indianapolis and his colleague Mark Messier was there too. But not even Gretzky and Messier could save the Indianapolis team and it folded in mid-season with Gretzky being sold to Edmonton and Messier moving on to Cincinnati.

And when the 1980 merger with the NHL occurred, the Cincinnati WHA team declined to join the NHL and went out of business too. Big league hockey in the Death Valley of Ohio and Indiana would not reappear until the Blue Jackets inhabited Columbus in 2000.

And yet as Amanda reported, the Lake Erie Monsters are a popular draw among local fans, but the NHL still fails to get any benefit from it. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis would be great rivals for Columbus and other teams like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Washington, but their names are not even whispered when NHL expansion is mentioned.

Few people today remember the Cleveland Crusaders, the Cleveland Barons, the Cincinnati Stingers and the Indianapolis Racers but the NHL has not. The horrible memory of those teams has left a permanent scar on the NHL. Even the Columbus Blue Jackets are still a precarious team that could be relocated if things went sour.

No one knows why big league hockey is either a complete failure or in such an unpopular, precarious position in the strange Death Valley of Ohio-Indiana, so close to the Canadian border. Lake Erie is indeed a monstrous memory for the NHL. And from their standpoint, when the media says the less about the AHL champion Monsters, the better.

Bettman Made Another League Feasible

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman set the price tag for admission into his exclusive club: $500 million big ones. Aside from another blatant example of taking professional sports away from the “common fan” (a topic that merits a separate article), his expensive price has had the opposite effect of what the league intends.

The NHL (and you can include the other professional big shots, the NFL, the NBA, and MLB, they are just as bad if not worse) by setting this price and all its other conditions of admission is saying that only the purest, the richest, the most well-bred of investors is worthy to join us. And only the two cities that were the most fanatical about joining, Las Vegas and Quebec City were willing to bite the expensive bullet.

Quebec City’s reaction is understandable. Ever since their old NHL team, the Quebec Nordiques left in 1995, Quebec has wanted its team back. There was never any problem with fan base, just the arena and ownership. Quebec was one of the mainstays of the old WHA.

Las Vegas is more debatable. They have never had any of the four professional sports leagues place a team in their city and at least for now, the prospect of doing it seems a fascinating novelty.

But most (wise) investors looked closely before they leapt. $500 million is quite a jump in price from the $80 million it took to enter the league during the last expansion in the late 1990s, especially to join a league that is probably ranked fourth among the “big four” professional sports leagues in the United States and only has one franchise (ironically the Canadian based Toronto Maple Leafs) listed in the top twenty richest, professional sports franchises.

Some potential investors like the Hunt family in Kansas City publicly backed off. An ex-NHL owner, Peter Pocklington denounced the expensive price.

When looked at closely, it is a highly questionable policy. If these applicants are going to be your new partners, why do you want to burden them with an excessive entry fee? And especially with the NHL, throughout Bettman’s reign as Commissioner, many of his existing franchises have been chronically losing money. An excessive entry fee increases the possibility for an unsuccessful franchise to function.

You won’t have any problem with Quebec City. Quebec City with a proper NHL arena and owner is a sure-fire winner. But Las Vegas is the type of franchise so often favored by Bettman in an attempt to get a rich American televison contract: An attempt to spread the game of hockey by introducing it into markets where it has no roots. One would think that the NHL has had enough Atlantas, Phoenixes, and Floridas. An excessive entry fee might be the lighted match that would eventually ruin a Las Vegas franchise.

But if new investors really want to operate a professional hockey team, it might be better to join together, scrap an expensive entry fee, and start their own league. Put the $500 million to something useful like player and management salaries and new arenas.

That’s what happened in the early 1970s when the WHA was formed. Owners who found they could not buy their way into the NHL set up their own league and while nobody wants a return to the “war years”, Gary Bettman’s excessive price makes the possibility of starting a new league feasible.

Furthermore, conditions are better for starting a new hockey league now than they were in 1972. Back then, most WHA teams played in small, old, run-down arenas, but that would not be the case if a new league made its franchise choices wisely. Back then only Cleveland (a disaster of a franchise) and Edmonton (which built its existing arena for its WHA team) played in modern arenas.

The best franchise choices for a new league would be Quebec, Hartford, Toronto, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Portland, Kansas City, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee. Most of these cities have roots in hockey and all of them have arenas that seat at least 15,000. With proper ownership and investment, franchises with at least a half-decent arena and a fan base with roots in hockey have at least a 50% chance of survival. And except for a second Toronto team, none of them would be based in an existing NHL market.

One of the first things the WHA did was that its owners pooled their resources to pay the NHL’s second biggest star, Bobby Hull, to join the Winnipeg Jets. This gave the league instant credibility. They also prized Canadian franchises because they realized that Canadian fans were the ones most responsible for the league’s survival. At one time, there was even a Canadian division. The NHL should remember that.

There are other advantages. The new Toronto and Hamilton franchises would not have to pay any compensation to the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres for infringing on their territory. Any new innovations and any reduction in ticket prices would be welcomed by “common” fans who can scarcely afford tickets or even sports merchandise and who are fed up with the arrogance of the “big four” leagues.

Most of all, the new league could wait for a merger, just like the WHA and AFL did. It may have taken longer to get into the NHL and NFL, but in the end, it was probably cheaper.